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The 9 most damaging myths about abortion on the Internet

A recent smear campaign shows that the Internet can be a dangerous place for reproductive rights.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

A newly released study just took on the oft-repeated notion that abortion causes “emotional harm,” finding that the vast majority of study participants felt they’d made the right decision when they terminated their pregnancies. At Jezebel, Anna Merlan notes that myths like this one are responsible for the growing tide of anti-abortion legislation and shrinking access to abortion services across the U.S.

Abortion is one of the most controversial issues in the United States, and as as a recent smear campaign launched against Planned Parenthood on the Internet shows, it’s still a bone of hot contention online. 

Since 1973, medical providers have performed roughly 53 million safe and legal abortions—and despite what some claim, the abortion rate is actually falling radically. That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to damaging abortion myths used to terrorize women or justify abortion restrictions, such as the 51 pieces of legislation already passed in 2015.

1) Abortion causes lasting mental and physical health problems

One of the most popular myths about abortion is that it causes serious health problems that will lead to a permanent medical condition after an abortion. People seeking abortions are warned about “post-abortion syndrome,” depression, regret, and other mental health complications in the wake of the procedure. 

In response to this claim and dueling studies on the subject, organizations like the American Psychological Association conducted painstaking reviews of available literature, finding serious methodological flaws in studies linking abortion to depression and firmly concluding that abortion does not cause long-term mental health problems.

Patients are also told that abortion could permanently damage future fertility, suggesting that those concerned with the ability to have children in the future shouldn’t pursue therapeutic abortion. No studies support this claim, as many patients who receive abortions go on to have children later in life. 

Despicably, patients also told that the procedure causes breast cancer. Scores of studies have explored an abortion and breast cancer link, and the result of all reputable studies has been identical: Abortion is not linked to a higher risk of cancer.

2) People use abortion as birth control

Opponents to abortion often argue that the procedure is a tool of lazy, selfish people who can’t be bothered to use birth control—including abstinence—instead choosing to simply abort the product of unprotected sex. In fact, some 50 percent of patients were using birth control at or around the time of implantation, and contraceptives are available for free or at very low cost in much the United States—all thanks to health care reform.

Abortion, by contrast, can cost $450-$3,000, depending on when, how, and where it is performed. For all but the most wealthy of patients, this would be a highly inefficient method of birth control, setting aside the stress of setting up appointments, dealing with recovery time, and managing the myriad issues that arise during the course of receiving an abortion.

3) Banning the practice will end abortion

Proponents of anti-abortion legislation suggest that making abortion illegal will also put a stop to the procedure. However, as illustrated in nations where abortion is currently illegal, what actually happens in this situation is a high rate of dangerous illegal abortions. Illegal abortions endanger people, as illustrated by the number of deaths that occurred pre-Roe—an estimated 5,000 patients annually.

If patient endangerment isn’t reason enough to support full legalization of abortion, perhaps this will: A 2007 study found no difference in the number of abortions between nations where the procedure is legal and nations where it is not. However, nations with illegal abortions experienced a large numbers of deaths and complications—including loss of fertility—associated with underground procedures.

4) Most people oppose abortion

Statistics on this subject are readily available, and contrary to claims, there’s significant majority support for abortion in the United States. Gallup, a highly-regarded polling organization, found that some 80 percent of Americans supported the procedure, though only 29 percent believe abortion should be legal without restrictions. 

Notably, however, the number of Americans unilaterally supporting abortion is on a steady upward trend, though the figure hasn’t returned to its record high of 34 percent in 1993.

5) Abortion is dangerous

In fact, abortion is one of the safest possible medical procedures in the United States. The rate of complications, including deaths, is extremely low—so low that abortion is a suitable option for telemedicine, in which patients consult with a physician who works remotely. Less than 2.1 percent of abortions result in complications requiring major medical treatment, and only 0.6 percent are associated with death. Just six women died of abortion complications in 2007.

Abortion is safer than both colonoscopies and pregnancy, oddly enough, it has a complication rate similar to that seen with other outpatient medical procedures. Abortion provider Dr. Dan Grossman points out that you’re more likely to die in a multi-day bicycle touring event than you are from an abortion.

6) People are coerced into abortions

The notion of anyone being pressured into an abortion is a horrible one, which is why this canard often comes up in anti-choice rhetoric. However, a 2005 study indicated that fewer than 1 percent of patients cite coercion as a major factor in their procedures, usually in the case of pressure from partners or parents. 

Such cases are by no means trivial, but numerous safeguards are in place to prevent coercion—including confidential interviews to ensure patients can ask for assistance when theres parental or partner pressure, domestic violence, or other factors. 

Also, restricting access to abortion doesn’t have any demonstrable effect on lowering the instance of coercion.

7) Abortion is racist

According to the anti-abortion website Life News, having an abortion is akin to slavery.

“In Dred Scott, seven justices ruled that an escaped slave—a black man—was not a person and could not be a citizen of the United States,” the site’s Ryan Bomberger writes. “The Constitution did not apply to him, and people of his ancestry could be bought, sold, traded or killed. In Roe, seven justices ruled that the unborn are not persons and therefore are not entitled to the protections of the Constitution and can be bought, sold, traded or killed because they’re merely someone else’s property.”

While Bomberger is right that there’s a disproportionately high abortion rate in communities of color, his spurious analogy doesn’t examine the root of the problem. The rate of terminated pregnancies is due to the fact that these communities face more socioeconomic challenges than white communities, making it difficult for some families to support children. The problem here is not racism itself, but a failure to enact institutional supports to address social inequality.

The fact that economic considerations are often a factor in decisions about childrearing should be acknowledged, but we won’t solve these problems by banning abortion. We might actually make them worse.

8) Abortion causes fetal pain

Claims about fetal pain are also extremely widespread, arguing that abortion is an unethical procedure on the grounds that it causes agony to the developing fetus, whether one considers the fetus a baby or not. 

However, fetal pain isn’t physically possible in the vast majority of abortions performed in the United States, as the neurological pathways necessary to experience and process pain don’t develop until 29 weeks gestation. Less than 1.2 percent of abortions are performed after 21 weeks, and a fraction of this percentage occurs at 29 weeks or later, usually in tragic circumstances.

When abortions are performed after 29 weeks, patients typically receive anesthesia which will pass from the placenta to the fetus, eliminating the risk of pain if the fetus is still alive and the neurological system is completely formed, which is often not the case. Typically, the fetus dies shortly after induction, long before it would have begun to experience pain.

9) Abortion is readily available

Some anti-choicers argue that tighter regulation is necessary to restrict access to abortion, suggesting that abortion is as easy to obtain as a Milky Way at the corner store. 

In fact, all U.S. states have severe restrictions on abortion, some of which functionally make the procedure nearly impossible to access; some states also have abortion bans on the books that would go into immediate force if the Supreme Court ever struck down Roe v Wade. Moreover, 87 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion provider, and even fewer offer providers capable of performing specialized abortion procedures such as those involving high-risk pregnancies.

These restrictions primarily take the form of Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws, which specifically focus on limiting access to abortion. Some require providers to lie about the potential complications of abortion, while others reclassify abortion facilities as ambulatory surgery centers to require them to meet very strict qualifications. 

In many cases, patients must make multiple visits, going to a clinic for examination, enduring a waiting period, and then undergoing the procedure itself. Invasive ultrasound procedures are required in some states, and in others, there are so few abortion clinics that the procedure is all but inaccessible.

The horrific case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell illustrates what happens when access to abortion is restricted. His “house of horrors” was a chamber of untold suffering for patients who sought procedures from him because they had no other options.

The Internet provides prime ground for these myths to flourish, as anti-choice groups can Googlebomb with known keywords, keeping them front and center and targeting people seeking information on abortion. Even with pro-choice groups pushing back to debunk misinformation campaigns, some moderates still believe any number of these damaging lies.

Advocates for unrestricted access to the procedure have to combat these myths in Congress, among the general public, and sometimes even in their own communities.

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with regular appearances in the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via tsaiproject/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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