A large body of research confirms that abortion is a very safe medical procedure with an incredibly low rate of serious complications. Nonetheless, anti-abortion groups have successfully furthered the notion that abortion procedures are risky for patients, convincing lawmakers across the country to impose additional restrictions on clinics and doctors that ultimately make it more difficult for them to remain operating.
This legislative strategy has been incredibly effective despite the fact that it’s not based in any scientific evidence. If you wonder how that’s possible, look no further than Nebraska, where a recent story centered on a Planned Parenthood clinic illustrates how exactly the “dangerous abortion” myth gets propped up.
At the beginning of this week, anti-abortion outlets like Operation Rescue, Life News, and Life Site News reported that a patient had been transported to the hospital from a Planned Parenthood clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska. The stories all implied that Planned Parenthood employs doctors who regularly injure patients.
Operation Rescue first published details of the incident — including a photo of a woman in a stretcher — that the group says were provided by anti-abortion protesters stationed outside of the Lincoln clinic. The original story stated that an “abortionist” sent the woman to the hospital and “the ambulance left the scene without running lights or sirens, which is sometimes requested by abortion businesses in order to downplay serious medical emergencies and deflect negative attention.” Life News picked up the story, declaring in its headline that the doctor who works at the clinic “just botched an abortion.”
The story quickly spread to the halls of the Nebraska legislature, which is currently weighing whether to tighten regulations on abortion clinics in the name of patient safety. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, several state lawmakers read those reports and contacted the Planned Parenthood clinic to ask what happened.
However, the Journal Star also reports that the account is false. Planned Parenthood employees say the woman who was transported to the hospital didn’t undergo an abortion; in fact, staff members called 911 after she arrived at the clinic seeking assistance following an incidence of domestic violence. She allegedly suffered a head injury at her home. Lincoln’s police captain confirmed that the department is investigating the case as a domestic assault.
The anti-abortion sites have since updated their stories. Operation Rescue apologized, saying that all news outlets get things wrong sometimes and emphasizing that their sources are typically trustworthy. “Sidewalk counsellors [sic] are usually very reliable witnesses. Given the multitude of documented abortion injuries and deaths at Planned Parenthood abortion clinics, it is easy to see why this woman was actually a patient,” Cheryl Sullenger, the group’s senior policy adviser, wrote.
But it’s not an isolated instance in the pro-life community. Other reports about emergency vehicles arriving at abortion clinics have also been trumped up to give people the false impression that clinics are dangerously unregulated.
Last fall, for instance, in the lead-up to a statewide vote on a ballot measure to give the Tennessee legislature more power to restrict abortion, supporters of the initiative released misleading TV ads featuring a 911 call made from a clinic in Bristol. “Tennessee has compromised the health and safety of certain women. Some Tennessee abortion facilities are not regulated like other surgical centers. This has to change,” the voiceover intoned ominously. The lawyer for that clinic told the Nation that the 911 call used in the ad “wasn’t directly related” to the woman’s abortion procedure at all. Nonetheless, the ballot measure passed, paving the way for state lawmakers’ recent approval of a new law to impose harsh regulations on abortion clinics.
For activists who oppose abortion, tracking ambulances at women’s health clinics fits into a larger strategy that stretches back decades. Joe Scheidler — the founder of the Pro-Life Action League and the author of the movement’s definitive guide to closing abortion clinics — has been raising concerns about Planned Parenthood since the 1980s, which has helped spur modern-day advocacy campaigns to work to “expose” the national women health’s organization.
Clinic staffers have raised concerns about this approach, suggesting that, in addition to leaping to unsubstantiated conclusions about patient safety, anti-abortion protesters are perhaps too gleeful about the prospect of a sick individual needing to go to the hospital. Two years ago, when an ambulance arrived at Mississippi’s only abortion clinic to transport a patient for a follow-up exam, clinic volunteers said that the president of Pro-Life Mississippi exclaimed, “Hallelujah!”
Nebraska and Tennessee aren’t the only examples of states where myths about abortion safety are having a direct influence on lawmakers. The legislative trend known as the Targeted Regulated of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, is becoming widespread — and is often linked to the false assumption that abortion patients need easy access to emergency rooms. Some TRAP laws require abortion clinics to enter into unnecessary partnerships with local hospitals to ensure their patients can be admitted there, even though federal law already prohibits emergency rooms from turning away patients.
Ironically, clinics typically struggle to secure these partnerships specifically because they transport so few patients to hospitals (which means that entering into an official contract with an abortion provider is a bad business move for hospitals). But if they can’t comply with the TRAP law, they often have no choice but to close their doors. Over the past several years, this particular type of restriction has shuttered a record-breaking number of clinics in Texas and Ohio.
These narratives about the need for more laws to protect abortion patients persist, even though researchers have found that the rate of serious complications from first-trimester abortions — in other words, the issues that may land a patient in the hospital — is less than 0.05 percent. Even when politicians themselves have gone looking for evidence to justify TRAP laws, they’ve come up short. In 2013, a Republican-initiated investigation into abortion clinics turned up evidence only that they are already very safe and highly regulated.