What “Elective Surgery” really means

And yes, Virginia, this does apply to abortion surgery as well.

I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of people arguing that women having therapeutic late-term abortions don’t really have good medical reasons because the surgeries are classified as elective so there can’t have really been any life-threatening condition. Here is the text to a reply I made to one such claimant.

You don’t understand what “elective surgery” really means

In medical terminology, all surgeries that are not urgently required within 24hrs* of the medical assessment for surgery are “elective”. Elective surgeries go on a waiting list to be scheduled according to their urgency category (say within 1 week, within 1 month or within 6 months) while true emergency surgeries jump the scheduled queue for the OR.

The term elective surgery does not mean “unnecessary” or “on a whim”, and that has been explained to the heads of anti-legal-abortion groups many times over, yet they still repeat the lie to their followers. So which are you? One of the knowing liars, or merely someone who has believed the lies that you’ve been told?

Many life-saving operations are categorised as Urgent Elective Surgery because they are not emergency-right-now surgery,. Go get the handbook for any hospital’s surgery department that explains how the waiting list works if you don’t believe this.
* Organ transplants are scheduled Urgent Elective operations, not emergency-right-now surgery.
* Coronary artery bypass surgery is a scheduled Urgent Elective operation, not an emergency-right-now surgery.
* Surgery to remove cancerous growths is scheduled Urgent Elective surgery, not emergency-right-now surgery.

Therapeutic late-term abortions of pregnancy are rarely required as emergency-right-now, but they are nearly always classified as Urgent Elective, and in cases where there is an emergency life threat then the surgeon has to be so focussed on saving the mother’s life that there is often no time to also preserve her future fertility (because these are almost always wanted pregnancies that have gone tragically wrong). Having an Urgent Elective therapeutic pregnancy termination performed by a skilled OBGYN allows that bit of extra time to preserve future fertility while aborting the current pregnancy.

Hey, but who wants women who really want a family to still be able to have more children even if one of their pregnancies goes horribly wrong, eh? Obviously not anyone who knowingly lies about what elective surgery truly is.

* minor differences between medical systems might exist as to the cut-off – some less, some slightly more than within 24 hours. However, any surgery that is necessary to preserve life but doesn’t have to be performed for a week or two when the right team can be assembled in the right OR is not an Emergency surgery, it is an Urgent Elective surgery.

NB: this post has been slightly edited to improve clarity since first publication

Categories: culture wars, ethics & philosophy, language, medicine

Tags: , ,

4 replies

  1. So elective covers essentially everything that’s not an immediate drop-everything emergency? I didn’t know that; thankyou tigtog.

  2. That was all new to me too. It’s very useful to know what “elective” really means in this context. Thanks, Tigtog.

  3. I think this phrasing also contributes to the way ‘elective cesarean’ is so often translated into ‘too posh/lazy/whatever to push’. The word ‘elective’ implies equally valid options with the deciding factor being personal preference, which, as you have pointed out, is not necessarily the case.

  4. I hadn’t thought of that, but I’m sure you’re right.


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