All eyes are on the Supreme Court this week as the justices are preparing to wade into the biggest abortion case in decades. It’s a case that could dramatically reshape the reproductive rights landscape across the country. It’s also a case built on a lie.
On Wednesday, the court will hear oral arguments regarding a Texas law that imposes harsh restrictions on abortion clinics under the guise of protecting patients’ health and safety. This legislation fits into a larger strategy — known as the “Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers,” or TRAP — based on the concept that, since abortion is a serious and potentially dangerous surgical procedure, it needs to be tightly regimented so women don’t wind up in the hospital.
There’s just one problem: It’s not true.
Though the architects of Texas’ law won’t acknowledge the inconvenient fact that abortion is already a safe procedure, the evidence in the field is overwhelming.
There’s no scientific proof to support the idea that abortion is unsafe. It’s actually 14 times safer than giving birth to a child and 40 times safer than a common colonoscopy procedure. Most abortions don’t require any surgery in the traditional sense (instead of being cut open, patients either swallow a pill or have their cervix dilated). Leading medical groups don’t agree that clinics need any additional regulation, in no small part because there is less than a 0.25 percent chance that an abortion patient will ever need to go to the hospital.
Nonetheless, abortion opponents have been working for years to craft a narrative that misleads Americans about what it’s really like to end a pregnancy, and ultimately construes abortion as a risky medical procedure.
“The pro-life side realized, to their credit, that they had to rethink their image,” Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for Choice, told the New York Times back in 2012. “A lot of people in the middle were looking at them and saying, ‘You care about the unborn babies, but what about the mothers?’ So they started talking about protecting women, too.”
TRAP laws sound innocuous enough on the surface, even somewhat sensible — after all, who isn’t in favor of raising the safety standards for medical procedures? — but they’re carefully designed to force clinics to shutter. By requiring abortion providers to meet impossible standards, like widening their hallways, expanding their closets, installing new air filtration systems, and applying for unnecessary licenses, clinics are left with no choice but to close their doors.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
The anti-abortion community’s efforts in this area have paid off. Recent polling has found that most Americans overestimate the safety risks of having an abortion, a perception buoyed by the fact that pop culture tends to sensationalize abortion as more dangerous than it actually is. And, thanks to influential advocacy groups that help write draft legislation and shop it around to conservative lawmakers, TRAP laws have swept the country.
Americans started paying closer attention to this trend when TRAP made its way to Texas in 2013. Suddenly, the vast Lone Star State was in immediate danger of losing dozens of clinics and leaving hundreds of miles without any legal abortion options whatsoever. Texas is 773 miles wide, 790 miles long, and home to some of the poorest communities in the entire United States. It’s against this backdrop that the devastating consequences of TRAP laws have been laid bare.
Doctors contend that Texas’ TRAP law actively harms women’s health by making it too difficult to access legal abortion services. Without those options, patients tend to take matters into their own hands. At least 100,000 Texas women have tried to self-induce their own abortion since the state’s clinics started closing, according to University of Texas researchers.
Nonetheless, now that this law has made it all the way up to the Supreme Court, the state isn’t dropping the charade. Texas is prepared to make primarily medical arguments about why its restrictions will help patients.
“The common-sense measures Texas has put in place elevate the standard of care and protect the health of Texas women,” Ken Paxton Jr., the state’s attorney general, said in response to the high court’s decision to take up the case last fall.
Upon further scrutiny, Paxton’s claim quickly falls apart. As the New York Times editorial board put it when the justices first decided to take up this case, Texas’ abortion law is “deceptive” and based on a “fallacious rationale.”
But Texas lawmakers, Supreme Court justices, and the American public don’t need to rely on the wisdom of newspapers to make up their minds about TRAP laws. There are plenty of other diverse sources to counter this “women’s health” talking point.
The lie at the heart of Texas’ law hasn’t only been exposed by doctors, researchers, and medical groups. It’s also been disproven by the same Republican lawmakers who are skeptical about abortion. In 2013, as the conversation about TRAP laws heated up, a GOP-initiated investigation into abortion clinics — which was hoping to find evidence that providers are cutting corners — concluded that they’re already very regulated and extremely safe.