Abortion policies in U.S. teaching hospitals formal and informal parameters beyond the law

Zeldovich V, Rocca C, Langton C, Landy U, Ly E S, Freedman L R

American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology
Jun 2020


To evaluate the prevalence and features of policies regulating abortion in U.S. teaching hospitals.


In this mixed-methods study, we conducted a national survey of obstetrics and gynecology teaching hospitals (2015–2016) and qualitative interviews (2014 and 2017) with directors at obstetrics and gynecology residency programs. We asked participants about hospital regulations on abortion and their perceptions of the nature and enforcement of these policies. Interview analysis was conducted with a grounded theoretical approach and informed development of the survey. The prevalence of policies was described using survey data; differences in policy structures by region were analyzed using a series of logistic regression models.


Directors from 169 of 231 eligible training programs responded to the survey (73%). Institutional policies limited abortion beyond state law in 57% of teaching hospitals, most commonly in the Midwest and South (odds ratio [OR] 4.3, P<.01 for Midwest; OR 4.0, P=.001 for South vs Northeast). Policies varied in form (written and unwritten) and restricted abortion based on the indication for the procedure and gestational age. Nonmedically indicated, or “elective” procedures were more commonly restricted (48% of sites reporting any policy and 25% prohibiting these abortions altogether) than medically indicated ones (28% of sites reporting any policy.) Policies were created by those with institutional power, including hospital leadership and obstetrics and gynecology department chairs, and were perceived to be motivated by personal beliefs and a desire to avoid controversy. Rules were commonly enforced by medical specialists, hospital ethics committees, and department chairs. Qualitative data highlighted the convoluted nuances of these policies, which often put clinicians at odds with their professional mandates.


Reportedly driven by broader institutional interests, obstetrics and gynecology teaching hospital policies often restricted abortion beyond state law to the detriment of abortion access and training opportunities. Vague or unwritten abortion policies, although difficult to navigate, gave health care providers some agency and flexibility over their practices.