Under the guise of protecting women’s health, anti-abortion legislators have enacted over 400 restrictions on abortion since 2011, often justified by claims to make abortion safer—and voters believe them.
According to the findings of Dr. Liza Fuentes, a Senior Research Scientist at the Guttmacher Institute who conducted research on anti-abortion laws at Texas Policy Evaluation Project, many people support abortion restrictions because they believe anti-abortion rhetoric that abortion is unsafe and that restrictions will protect women’s health.
The anti-abortion movement would like you to believe that abortion is dangerous. But a first trimester abortion—the kind which comprises 90 percent of abortions overall—is simple and safe. In fact, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures, with minimal short-term or long-term risks—and anti-abortion restrictions are actually making abortion less safe and putting women’s lives at risk.
Take, for example, Texas’ draconian anti-abortion law, HB 2. Passed in 2013, HB 2 required abortion providers to have admitting privileges at local hospitals and required all abortion facilities to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, even if those facilities provide only medication abortion. These restrictions offered no health benefits—but had the effect of reducing the number of abortion clinics in Texas from 41 to 22. As a result, women seeking abortion experienced confusion about where to go for care, increased cost and travel time (which compromised privacy) and delays in obtaining care. For the poorer women in the Rio Grande Valley, obtaining an abortion required a seven-hour drive. Years after HB 2, women in Texas are still grappling with scarce abortion access.
Fuentes’ research into voters’ understanding of the impact of the law showed that many women have misperceptions about the safety of abortion and the impact of the Texas law. Among women who strongly or somewhat supported the Texas abortion law, over 40 percent said the main reason was that they believed the law would make abortion safer—which it would in fact not do, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
“Texas politicians were trading on women’s support for safe, accessible abortion in order to get support for laws that had just the opposite effect,” Fuentes explained to Ms., “particularly for those who had the fewest resources to overcome it.”
According to Fuentes, abortion is the only medical procedure that is regulated by politics, rather than medical science. The data doesn’t prove her wrong. More than half of women in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 44 live in a state with two or more abortion restrictions that directly conflict with scientific evidence. Some states force healthcare providers to lie to their patients about abortion to deter them from accessing such care, telling them that the procedure increases the risk of breast cancer or mental illness. Other states impose targeted regulation of abortion providers, or TRAP laws, that impose burdensome and totally unnecessary requirements on abortion clinics—like HB 2 in Texas. These restrictions make abortion less accessible, which delays the procedure until later in pregnancy, increasing the health risks of abortion.
And, ironically, many of these laws that threaten women’s health require public health departments to enforce them. As Fuentes sums it up: “These laws conflict with scientific evidence, don’t promote health and well-being, and in the long term hijack the public health system.”
But there is hope. In 2016, the Supreme Court ruled in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt that legislators must have some factual basis to justify regulations that purport to protect women’s health—they can’t just base laws on totally unsubstantiated claims. The attorney who argued the case before the Supreme Court, Stephanie Toti, recently created the Lawyering Project—dedicated to using the decision to challenge laws across the country that are based on fake facts and endanger women’s health.
While striking down harmful laws is important, we also need a campaign to counter the misunderstandings and fear of abortion fomented by the anti-abortion movement. The silence and mystery surrounding abortion enables these misrepresentations, as does the political divisiveness that results in focusing on the worst case scenarios rather than on “ordinary abortion.”
A new study shows that scientifically accurate information about abortion safety did affect Texas voters’ opinions about restrictive laws, which Kari White of the Texas Evaluation Policy Institute at UT Austin considers a “significant opportunity for public health professionals and reproductive rights advocates to educate voters about the safety of abortion and bring public opinion more in line with scientific evidence.”
Groups like the National Abortion Federation and Self-Managed Abortion. Safe and Supported provide educational resources on abortion; campaigns like My Abortion. My Life. work to fight abortion stigma. But to counter conservative attempts to make abortion sound scary and dangerous, we need a broader campaign to make clear to the public that abortion is a safe and simple procedure.
And that’s a real fact.