The biggest threat to legal abortion rights right now is the perception that it’s a dangerous medical procedure.
Fear of medical risk is being used to enact harsh restrictions on abortion clinics throughout the nation. By framing this effort in terms of women’s “health and safety,” abortion opponents have successfully convinced lawmakers that clinics and doctors need additional regulation. Although those harsh requirements are actually designed to force clinics out of business altogether, that hasn’t stopped them from advancing. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of women of reproductive age now live in area where they’re subject to these state restrictions.
These laws — which fall under a strategy known as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP — are currently the subject of several court challenges that will determine the future of millions of women’s access to abortion services. The issue has a good chance of making it all the way up to the Supreme Court next term. There’s no telling how the courts will ultimately rule on TRAP laws, but one thing is clear: This entire issue isn’t based on any medical evidence.
There isn’t any data proving that patients at abortion clinics are receiving substandard care. When it comes to first-trimester abortions, the rate of serious complications — issues that may land a woman in the hospital — is less than 0.05 percent. The risk of dying from an abortion is considerably smaller, estimated as occurring in 0.0006 percent of all legal surgical abortions. To put that in perspective, the risk of death associated with childbirth is about 14 times higher.
Medically speaking, there are dozens of common medical procedures that are considered to be very safe but that are still riskier than abortion. The mortality rates are higher for gallbladder removal, knee replacement surgery, bariatric surgery, and hernia surgery.
There are also non-surgical procedures sometimes performed outside of hospital settings that are more likely to kill people than abortion, but that don’t face the same type of regulation that abortion does. “As an example, the mortality rate associated with a colonoscopy is more than 40 times greater than that of abortion,” Jeanne Conry, the former president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the largest group of OB-GYNs in the country, recently explained to Kaiser Health News. But no one is passing state laws to crack down on gastroenterologists.
As TRAP laws are put on trial, proponents of this type of legislation are typically forced to admit there’s no proof abortion doctors or abortion clinics are actually safer when they’re required to follow those standards. Just this week, a witness on the stand in Texas acknowledged that the state’s harsh restrictions “are not indicative of doctor quality or ensure better continuity of care.” They have, however, forced half of the state’s clinics to close their doors over the past year.
Some judges are catching on. Over the past week, court decisions in Mississippi and Alabama ensured that those states aren’t allowed to enforce TRAP laws that would close abortion clinics. The judge who struckAlabama’s law wrote in his opinion that it is “necessary to recognize how vanishingly rare it is for women to have serious complications from early-term abortions.” Meanwhile, however, a TRAP law in Texas has been upheld, and another in Wisconsin is awaiting a verdict that’s expected to be handed down this summer.
But anti-abortion politicians don’t even have to take doctors’ or judges’ word for it. Last year, a GOP-initiated investigation into abortion clinics turned up evidence only that they’re already highly regulated and extremely safe.