Cardiologists Concerned for Patient Safety After Abortion Ruling

June 28, 2022

Pregnancy termination for medical reasons had been part of the fabric of everyday healthcare in the United States since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v Wade decision, which the current high court overturned in a ruling announced last week.

That means many clinicians across specialties are entering uncharted territory with the country's new patchwork of abortion legality. Some specialties, cardiology among them, may feel the impact more than others.

"We know that the rising maternal mortality rate is predominantly driven by cardiovascular disease, women having children older and with risk factors like hypertension, diabetes, obesity," Jennifer H. Haythe, MD, told | Medscape Cardiology.

So the high court's decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v Wade and leaves the legality of abortion up to the 50 separate state legislatures, "is very relevant to cardiologists specifically," said Haythe, who is director of cardiology in the cardio-obstetrics program at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York City.

The ruling "is going to have a huge effect on women who may not be able to tolerate pregnancy," she said. Whether to terminate a pregnancy "is a relatively common discussion I have with women with bad heart failure about their risk of further decompensation, death, or needing a heart transplant or heart pump after delivery, or the risk of death in women with pulmonary hypertension."

The high court's decision "is a direct attack on the practice of medicine and really the sanctity of the patient–clinician relationship," Rachel M. Bond, MD, director of Women’s Heart Health Systems Dignity Health of Arizona, told | Medscape Cardiology.

Physicians take an oath "that we should do no harm to our patients, and once the law or governance impacts that, it places us in a very vulnerable situation," Bond said. "As a cardiologist who focuses a lot on high-risk pregnancies, I am worried and hesitant to give guidance to many of these patients in the states that may not have access to something which is a medical right, which at times is an abortion."

She has colleagues in obstetrics in states where abortion is newly illegal who "don't know what to do," Bond said. Many have sought guidance from their legal teams, she said, "and many of them are now trying to figure out what is the best path."

Pregnancy is "a very significant cardiovascular stress test, and women who may tolerate certain conditions reasonably well outside of the setting of pregnancy may have severe issues, not just for the mother, but for the baby as well," Ki Park, MD, University of Florida Health, Gainesville, told | Medscape Cardiology.

"As clinicians, none of us like recommending a medically indicated abortion. But it is healthcare, just like any other medication or treatment that we advise to our patients in cases where the risk of the mother is excessively high and mortality risk is elevated," said Park, who is cochair of the American College of Cardiology Cardio-Obstetrics Work Group.

Some conditions, such as pulmonary hypertension and severe aortic valve stenosis, during pregnancy are well recognized as very high risk, and there are various scoring systems to help clinicians with risk stratification, she observed. "But there are also a lot of gray areas where patients don't necessarily fit into these risk scores that we use."

So physician–patient discussions in high-risk pregnancies "are already complicated," Park said. "Patients want to have options, and they look to us as physicians for guidance with regard to their risks. And if abortion is not available as an option, then part of our toolbox is no longer available to help us care for the mother."

In the new legal climate, clinicians in states where abortion is illegal may well want to put more emphasis on preconception counseling, so more of their patients with high-risk conditions are aware of the new barriers to pregnancy termination.

"Unfortunately," Haythe said, "many of the states that are going to make or have made abortion illegal are not providing that kind of preconception counseling or good prenatal care to women."

Cardiologists can provide such counseling to their female patients of childbearing age who have high-risk cardiac conditions, "but not everybody knows that they have a heart problem when they get pregnant, and not everybody is getting screened for heart problems when they're of childbearing age," Haythe said.

"Sometimes it's not clear whether the problems could have been picked up until a woman is pregnant and has started to have symptoms." For example, "a lot of women with poor access to healthcare have rheumatic heart disease. They may have no idea that they have severe aortic stenosis, and it's not until their second trimester that they start to feel really short of breath." Often that can be treated in the cath lab, "but again, that's putting the woman and the baby at risk."

Cardiologists in states where abortion is illegal will still present the option to their patients with high-risk pregnancies, noted Haythe. But the conversation may sound something like, "you are at very high risk, termination of the pregnancy takes that risk away, but you'll have to find a state where it's legal to do that."

Park said such a situation, when abortion is recommended but locally unavailable, is much like any other in cardiology for which the patient may want a second opinion. If a center "doesn't have the capability or the technology to offer a certain treatment, the patient can opt to seek another opinion at another center," she said. "Patients will often travel out of state to get the care they need."

A requirement for out-of-state travel to obtain abortions is likely to worsen socioeconomic disparities in healthcare, Bond observed, "because we know that those who are low-income won't be able to afford that travel."

Bond is cosignatory on a statement from the Association of Black Cardiologists (ABC) responding to the high court's ruling in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization. "This decision will isolate the poor, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and minority populations specifically, widening the already large gaps in healthcare for our most vulnerable communities," it states.

"The loss of broad protections supporting the medical and often life-saving procedure of abortions is likely to have a real impact on the maternal mortality rate, especially in those with congenital and/or acquired cardiovascular conditions where evidence-based guidelines advise at times on termination of such high-risk pregnancies."

The ABC, it states, "believes that every woman, and every person, should be afforded the right to safe, accessible, legal, timely, patient-centered, equitable, and affordable healthcare."

The American College of Cardiology (ACC) released a statement on the matter on June 24, signed by its president, Edward T.A. Fry, MD, along with five former ACC presidents. "While the ACC has no official policy on abortion, clinical practice guidelines and other clinical guidance tools address the dangers of pregnancy in certain patient populations at higher risk of death or serious cardiac events."

The college, it states, is "deeply concerned about the potential implications of the Supreme Court decision regarding Roe vs. Wade on the ability of patients and clinicians to engage in important shared discussions about maternal health, or to remove previously available healthcare options."

Bond proposed that a "vocal stance" from medical societies involved in women's health, "perhaps even a collective stance from our cardiovascular societies and our obstetrics societies," would also perhaps reach "the masses of doctors in private practice who are dealing with these patients."

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