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Civil Rights, Culture, Economic Inequality, Gender, Government Programs, Health Care Reform, Health Disparities, Inequality, Justice, Justice System, Obama, Politics, Poverty, Public Health, Public Policy, Social Justice, Society, Uncategorized, Women's Health, Women's Rights

The Politics Of Women’s Rights: 6 Myths That Fuel The Anti-Choice Movement

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The debate over abortion is still one of the most contentious issues in modern politics. Though Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973, the anti-choice movement continues to fight to restrict women’s right to choose, thereby limiting access to safe abortions.  As is often the case with heated political debates and divisive social issues, the anti-choice movement often relies on unfounded claims and misconceptions to influence public opinion and demonize abortion and the women who seek abortions. Regardless of our personal views pertaining to any particular issue, we should all want to formulate our opinions based on the most accurate, relevant, and factual information. After all, what’s the point of taking a stance on an issue without actually understanding it? Yet facts seem to have taken a backseat to rhetoric in the ongoing debate over abortion, with many people relying on sensationalized stories, secondhand accounts, misleading and error-ridden “fact sheets,” and other unreliable sources to inform their views on this important issue.

It is also important to remember that our personal views do not necessarily reflect public opinion and may not represent what is best for the majority of Americans. Your personal feelings about abortion may be shaped by a variety of influences including family, personal experiences, religious beliefs, cultural and social norms, and political ideology. These sources of influence, however, may not serve as valid or practical foundations for informing public policy. As I have written about previously, a significant number of pro-choice advocates do not personally agree with abortion but recognize that it would be wrong to impose their viewpoint by law onto all women. Thus, being pro-choice does not mean you support abortion and being personally opposed to abortion does not mean that you are anti-choice. Although anti-choice activists are, by definition, anti-abortion, pro-choice advocates are not “pro-abortion” and they certainly do not promote abortion over birth. Rather, pro-choice advocates, unlike anti-choice advocates, believe that women should not be forced into anything, and they respect and defend the rights of women to decide what is best for their own life circumstances.

Having said that, I think it is extremely important that our opinions on public policy are informed by valid, evidence-based, and reliable information, as well as an understanding of the impact of anti-choice laws, the constitutionality of reproductive rights, and the interconnectedness of reproductive freedom and women’s health, autonomy, wellbeing, and status in society. Although there are hundreds of misconceptions about abortion that I could discuss, the following six are among the most common and destructive myths used to vilify abortion and diminish the importance of women’s reproductive rights.

Myth #1:  America has an abortion problem

Contrary to what some conservative legislators and anti-choice activists might have you believe, America does not have an abortion crisis. The annual incidence of abortion in the U.S. fell from a rate of 29.3 per 1,000 women in 1981 to 19.6 in 2008.  Between the years of 1973 and 2005, the abortion rate consistently dropped each year, a trend that researchers and women’s health experts say is the result of improvements in women’s access to contraception, increased knowledge and awareness of effective pregnancy prevention methods, and funding for programs like Medicaid’s family planning services.

The truth is that abortion is simply a symptom of the real problem, not a problem in itself. If we truly want to reduce the incidence of abortion, we need to address the real issues that lead to unintended pregnancy including poor sex education curricula (e.g. “abstinence-only” education), underfunded (and defunded) family planning programs and public health clinics, and limited access to affordable contraception. But instead of addressing these factors through proven strategies shown to reduce unintended pregnancy and abortion rates, anti-choice activists continue to push for “solutions” that end up increasing the need for abortion while simultaneously reducing access to it.

In the past 5 years, anti-choice Republican lawmakers have passed budgets slashing funding for family planning clinics and other vital pregnancy prevention programs. In the House of Representatives, Republicans passed legislation to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood and Title X, a federal grant program that supports family planning services in 4,500 clinics across the country.  Republicans gained public support for these measures by claiming that they would stop taxpayer money from being used to fund abortions. However, current law (i.e. the Hyde Amendment) already prohibits health care providers from using federal funding to finance abortion services. In reality, the budget cuts passed by Republican legislators did not have any impact on federal funding for abortions, but did result in the closure of family planning clinics nationwide. If these trends continue, the inevitable consequence will be an increase in abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, without publicly funded contraceptive and family planning clinics, the rates of unintended pregnancy ending in abortion would be 66% higher among all women and 73% higher among teens. Not only would Republican legislation lead to increased rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion, but they would also cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year. If taxpayer dollars are really the issue, then Republican lawmakers may want to consider this: in 2010 alone, public funding for contraceptive services resulted in net public savings of $10.5 billion dollars each year – $5.3 billion of which is directly attributable to services provided at Title X clinics. Thus, every dollar spent on public contraceptive services yields a savings of $5.68 for taxpayers – and these are the programs Republican legislators are trying to defund.

Myth #2:  Mandatory waiting periods are good because they make sure women really want to have an abortion, and they don’t stop anyone from getting an abortion.

Currently, 48 states require that abortion clinics provide mandatory pre-abortion options counseling, which is designed to inform women about the procedures and determine whether she is fully comfortable with her decision. Twenty-six states also require women to wait a specific period of time – at least 24 hours, and in some states up to 72 hours – between the counseling and the procedure. Proponents of mandatory waiting periods say that the purpose of these laws is to ensure that women ‘really want’ to have an abortion and to mandate that women take additional time to think about their decision. However, for several reasons mandatory waiting periods are ineffective and in many cases harmful.

Deciding to have an abortion is an incredibly difficult decision that women take very seriously. Research evaluating the outcomes of mandatory waiting laws shows that they have no impact on women’s decisions about abortion, as most women have already spent a significant amount of time thinking about it and are confident about their choice by the time they go to have the procedure.  In fact, less than 8% of women say that they are not yet completely sure of their decision when they seek pre-abortion counseling.  Very few women express regret or doubt about their decision, and approximately ¾ of women say that “nothing” could have changed their decision to have an abortion.

Another common argument among proponents of mandatory waiting periods is that the wait time is needed to prevent women from being forced into having an abortion. In reality, only about 1% of women who have abortions say that someone else coerced or forced them to have the procedure. More women are pressured out of having abortions than pressured into it, and more women are victims of sexual assault and reproductive coercion than abortion coercion.

Mandatory waiting periods also severely restrict women’s access to abortions, forcing them to wait longer or travel out of state to have the procedure. According to Planned Parenthood:

 “In many areas, women’s health centers that provide abortion do not operate daily, so a mandatory 24- or 48-hour delay may result in a much longer waiting period, increasing the number of later abortions. Because 87 percent of all counties in this country have no abortion providers, these requirements are especially burdensome to rural and poor women, who may not be able to take extra days off from work, travel long distances, or find appropriate child care while they are away from home.”

In fact, research shows that states with mandatory waiting periods experience more than a 50% increase in second-trimester abortions after the law is implemented. Although overall abortion rates fall by about 10% in states where a mandatory wait law is implemented, surrounding states experience significant increases in abortion rates, indicating that women are opting for out-of-state abortions – and importantly, that they are not changing their minds about having the procedure.

Women affected by mandatory waiting periods have very negative views regarding the impact of these laws. According to the authors of one study, “more than seven in 10 women were unable to name a single benefit to be derived from waiting, and six in 10 pointed to one or more problems they had experienced, including extra expense, missed work or school, experiencing some discomfort and entering the second trimester of pregnancy, among others.” The same study also found that mandatory waiting periods added almost 50% to the costs of the procedure for the typical low-income woman (due to travel expenses and lost wages). Further, the researchers reported that, “women who were surveyed before and after the waiting period said that they actually realized fewer benefits and experienced more problems from the waiting period than they had anticipated.”

Myth #3:  Women use abortion as a method of birth control

The National Abortion Federation calculated that, “if abortion were used as a primary method of birth control, a typical woman would have at least two or three pregnancies per year – 30 or more during her lifetime.” Given that more than half of women who obtain abortions each year have had no previous abortions, this quite obviously undermines the misconception that women forgo contraception and rely on abortions for birth control. Additionally, the majority of women who obtain abortions were using contraception (usually condoms or the pill) when they got pregnant.

According to Dr. Suzanne Poppema, an OB-GYN and former abortion provider, this myth is widespread but simply untrue:

“I hear this one so frequently and yet in decades of providing abortion services to more than 30,000 women, I met only two women who used abortion as a birth control method. And they were absolutely right to do so. These two women experienced blood clots while on birth control pills, ectopic pregnancies with the IUD, and they were allergic to latex condoms and spermicide. Using the rhythm method with abortion as backup was the best method for them. I’ve never met a woman who cavalierly chose abortion as her method of birth control.”

One of the very strange things about this misconception is that the conservative lawmakers and anti-choice organizations that push the myth are often the very same ones trying to limit women’s access to contraception and family planning services. By making it harder for women to obtain affordable contraception, these groups are essentially trying to force women into using abortion as a form of birth control by taking away their other options.

Myth #4:  If women were more responsible, they wouldn’t need abortions.

Many anti-abortion groups claim that abortions are not truly a necessary medical procedure because they could be prevented if women were more responsible. In reality, the facts on abortion completely dispel this myth. As mentioned previously, over half of women who have abortions had used a contraceptive method before and during the time they became pregnant. However, no method of contraception is 100% effective, and many factors – like missing one birth control pill, taking certain medications that interact with contraceptives, or even being overweight – can reduce the effectiveness of contraception. Dr. Suzanne Poppema, an OB/GYN and former abortion provider, says that “until we have a foolproof, easy-to-use form of birth control-in my opinion, that would be a pill, paid for by insurance, taken only once a year, with absolutely no side effects or adverse reactions, and absolutely no failures — then we cannot condemn women for having unintended pregnancies.”

At least half of all American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45. This is not the result of careless behavior, but rather a combination of factors including wide variation in the effectiveness of contraceptive methods, lack of knowledge and understanding of pregnancy prevention, misuse of contraceptives, and unwanted sexual experiences (i.e., sexual assault and reproductive coercion).  When women seek abortions, their reasons for doing so underscore their understanding of the tremendous responsibilities of parenting. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner. Further, almost two-thirds of abortions are obtained by women who already have one or more children, and one of the most common reasons women give for seeking abortions is that they do not have the ability to care for an additional child. The fact that women who seek abortions are considering whether or not they are prepared to be a good mother is the best evidence that they are behaving responsibly – certainly more so than those who support forcing women to give birth regardless of the circumstances and often knowing that the woman is not ready for motherhood. 

Myth #5:  Abortion is murder

If you have ever seen pictures or footage from an anti-abortion protest, you have undoubtedly seen someone holding up a sign proclaiming, “abortion is murder.” However, whether you approach this issue from a legal or medical perspective, the bottom line is that legal abortion procedures are nowhere close to murder.

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court ruling Roe v. Wade found that a fetus is not a person under the law and thus does not have rights of its own. This ruling is based on the fact that a fetus is not a viable autonomous entity, as it is fully dependent on the woman for support. Because rights in the U.S. are accorded to individuals, not parts of individuals, a fetus can therefore not have separate legal rights and is not considered a person.

Medically, fetal viability is defined as the point at which a fetus can survive outside of the mother’s womb. Although 24-25 weeks is often considered the beginning of fetal viability, there is a very large “gray zone” that makes it impossible to define a specific time at which a fetus can survive if removed from the womb. Recent medical technology has significantly changed the way viability is determined, making it possibly for fetuses as young as 24-26 weeks to survive with intensive medical intervention. According to medical ethicist Dr. Breborowicz:

 “Viability exists as a function of biomedical and technological capacities, which are different in different parts of the world. As a consequence, there is, at the present time, no worldwide, uniform gestational age that defines viability. Viability is not an intrinsic property of the fetus because viability should be understood in terms of both biological and technological factors. It is only in virtue of both factors that a viable fetus can exist ex utero and thus later achieve independent moral status.” 

Between 24-25 weeks gestation, approximately 50% of fetuses may survive with aggressive medical intervention; without intensive medical care, survival is not possible at such an early gestational age. The World Health Organization notes that, “even with the best resources available, the rate of survival of newborns below 26 weeks of gestational age is low.” There is no evidence in the medical literature that survival is possible before 22 weeks, and delivery during the 22nd week is associated with a 3% chance of survival. Given that 90% of abortions are performed within the first 12 weeks, and only about 1% after 21 weeks, almost all abortions are performed long before the point of viability – by any definition. Further, abortions performed after 20 weeks are almost always carried out for medical reasons, and abortions after 24 weeks are restricted to cases when the procedure is necessary to preserve the woman’s life or health.

Legally, the abortion-as-murder argument holds no weight. Marlena Sobel, J.D., of the Institute for First Amendment Studies, provides a strong legal justification for the constitutionality of abortion:

“Only a person can be murdered. Therefore, abortion is not murder unless one considers the fetus to be a person. According to Roe v. Wade, the word “person” does not include the unborn, and a fetus does not have equal status with the mother until the point of viability, or when the fetus can exist outside of the mother’s womb. In addition, according to the common law in criminal matters, the definition of a “person” is one who has been born alive. However, in recent years the subject of fetal “personhood” has taken alarming turns with the passing of “feticide statutes” that allow for criminal actions for the wrongful death of the fetus in the womb. Attempts to confer personhood on the legal status of the fetus has expanded into the civil and medical areas as well: there have been cases involving forced caesareans; forced blood transfusions against the pregnant woman’s religious convictions; and some states have even gone so far as to disallow the use of “living wills” for pregnant women. In all of these cases the “rights” of the fetus, whether before or after the point of viability, have been held paramount to the rights of the pregnant woman. The “genetic definition” of personhood, as developed by the evangelical Francis Schaeffer and former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, holds that science proves personhood at the moment of conception. Their argument follows that since the whole genetic code is established when the ovum and sperm is united, and each code is unique, a unique person is therefore created at the moment of conception. This logic is flawed, however, because although there is a continuum from conception to death, there is a difference between an actual person and a potential or possible person. A fertilized ovum, or zygote, is a cluster of cells; taking this genetic code argument to its extreme, each of those cells is encoded with a specific DNA. If each of these cells is then to be considered a possible human being, then any time any cell is removed, through surgery for instance, a potential life is destroyed.”

The implications of the so-called “personhood laws” are huge. If we were to give personhood rights to fetuses, almost all prenatal procedures would be deemed unethical and likely illegal, undermining the entire premise of prenatal care and fetal medicine. Given that these procedures are credited with unprecedented advancements in maternal and fetal health, personhood rights for fetuses would actually result in significant increases in fetal, infant, and maternal mortality. If saving lives is the goal here, I can’t think of a more counterproductive move.

Myth #6:  Abortions are unsafe and should only be performed in hospitals or surgery centers.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 0.3% of all abortion patients have subsequent complications; in fact, giving birth is more dangerous and more likely to cause death than having an abortion. The Guttmacher Institute also reports that “abortions performed in the first trimester pose virtually no long-term risk of such problems as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is also no consistent evidence that abortion is linked with other long-term negative health outcomes like cancer or depression. Researchers at the Guttmacher Institute say that “exhaustive reviews by panels convened by the U.S. and British governments have concluded that there is no association between abortion and breast cancer. There is also no indication that abortion is a risk factor for other cancers,” and that “in repeated studies since the early 1980s, leading experts have concluded that abortion does not pose a hazard to women’s mental health.

Efforts to make abortion services upgrade to a surgical center are misguided and would simply result in many clinics shutting down due to the costs of new equipment and staff. With less available abortion clinics, women are more likely to have to wait until later in their pregnancy to get an abortion, which increases the risk of complications.

Conclusions

The abortion debate is not likely to go away anytime soon, which means that pro-choice advocates must continue to fight for women’s reproductive rights. Like all other pro-choice advocates that I know, I would be thrilled if we could completely eradicate the need for abortion by securing enough funding to make contraceptives available to all women, implementing comprehensive sex education and pregnancy prevention programs, ensuring that women’s employment and economic prospects are not diminished by motherhood, and drastically improving government programs to make sure that all women and children have the financial, social, and health services and support that they need. Unfortunately, the same forces behind the anti-choice movement are also working against the very efforts that would reduce unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. As long as the anti-choice movement continues to try to strip away women’s reproductive rights, the pro-choice movement will be there to protect them.

 

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