In order to successfully enact an increasing number of state-level restrictions on abortion, the anti-choice community has relied on a tight network of biased sources who peddle false information about the medical procedure, according to a new investigative reporting project conducted by RH Reality Check.
RH Reality Check identified 14 major players who push anti-choice science specifically to mislead legislatures, courts, and the American public about the reality of abortion. These figures, who are frequently hired by state officials to serve as expert witnesses to defend anti-abortion laws, have made careers out of repeating claims that have been thoroughly debunked by medical organizations.
Their falsehoods about abortion have become the basis of laws on the books across the country — and have even been presented as evidence before the U.S. Supreme Court. These common abortion myths fit into four major categories:
1. Abortion is an unsafe medical procedure.
Perhaps the biggest threat to abortion access right now is the myth that it’s dangerous. This is the central argument at the heart of abortion opponents’ push to over-regulate abortion clinics, an effective strategy that’s packaged in terms of protecting women’s “health and safety.” Known as the Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers, or TRAP, these laws have swept the nation over the past several years. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that TRAP laws are the type of abortion restriction that now has the greatest impact on U.S. women.
In reality, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures out there, with a rate of complications of less than 0.05 percent. You’re 14 times more likely to die from giving birth than from having an abortion. And there’s no medical reason that abortions can’t be performed in standalone clinics, which multiple studies have confirmed are already highly regulated and incredibly safe. Many other outpatient procedures that don’t require a hospital visit are statistically much riskier. You’re 40 times more likely to die from a colonoscopy than from an abortion, for instance.
That hasn’t stopped prominent “experts” from repeatedly testifying about the need for more stringent regulations. RH Reality Check identified Dr. James Anderson, an emergency room physician specializing in family medicine in Virginia, as one figure who has argued in favor of TRAP laws enacted in Alabama, Alaska, Mississippi, North Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin.
2. Abortion is linked to breast cancer.
Five states currently have laws in place that require doctors to inform women of a false link between abortion and breast cancer before they’re allowed to proceed with their procedure. These inaccurate “informed consent” measures remain in effect despite the fact that prominent medical groups — including the American Cancer Society, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the National Cancer Institute — have all debunked the claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer.
That’s a direct result of figures like Joel Brind, a professor of human biology and endocrinology in New York who has continually advocated for this scientifically inaccurate theory. For decades, Brind has co-authored studies claiming that abortion has a causal relationship to breast cancer. By 2003, he had testified about the supposed link in Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Ohio.
Brind also founded the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute, a group that RH Reality Check reports “seems to have a pretty singular focus on promoting a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer and hormonal birth control and breast cancer.” The Institute’s studies formed the basis for the 2012 controversy over the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s partnership with Planned Parenthood, as abortion opponents pressured the breast cancer prevention group to cut ties with the women’s health organization.
3. Women who have abortions suffer from mental health consequences.
The supposed link between abortion and mental health issues is another hallmark of “informed consent” laws, and nine states currently require doctors to emphasize the potential negative emotional effects of choosing an abortion before allowing their patients to end a pregnancy. Although this has been an anti-choice talking point since the 1980s, when abortion opponents pressured the U.S. Surgeon General to investigate the potential relationship between abortion and mental health, there isn’t any conclusive evidence to back it up.
Nonetheless, figures like Dr. Monique Chireau, an assistant OB-GYN professor at Duke University who testified against a pro-choice bill in the U.S. Senate this year, continue to tout misleading information cherry picked from scientifically dubious studies on the topic. And states continue to hire Vincent Rue, an independent legal consultant who pioneered the concept of “Post-Abortion Syndrome” to claim that abortion causes mental illness, to fight for anti-abortion laws in court.
The scientific community is in agreement about the fact that Post-Abortion Syndrome is a myth. A long list of rigorous scientific studies have found that, while abortion may inspire mixed emotions, it carries no risk of long-term emotional problems.
4. Banning abortion is effective and won’t lead to unsafe procedures.
Legislation is, of course, intended to accomplish policy goals, and abortion opponents have been clear about their objective of lowering the number of women who have abortions. But the actual data suggests they’re not accomplishing this. Anti-abortion administrations have not successfully lowered the abortion rate despite advancing policies that restrict access to the procedure. Multiple studies have found that harsh abortion bans don’t lead to a fewer number of abortion procedures. In fact, restricting abortion is simply associated with a higher number of unsafe procedures.
Even so, lawmakers are able to get people on the witness stand to argue otherwise. For instance, Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, has testified before Congress in support of imposing additional restrictions on minors seeking abortions — which he argues will protect public health by lowering the number of teens who go through with the procedure. And proponents of new state laws frequently cite dubious research conducted by Elard S. Koch, an epidemiologist in Chile who has argued that his country’s harsh abortion ban has no relationship to maternal mortality.
The lack of real evidence in this area hasn’t prevented this from becoming a major theme in the way that the anti-choice community talks about abortion policy. Lawmakers almost always suggest that their proposed restrictions will ultimately lead fewer women to choose to end a pregnancy. And right-wing activists claim that the data about botched back alley abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade has simply been inflated.