The 7 biggest myths about abortion

Abortion foes are targeting women from all sides, spreading lies. Let's clear up a few of the more popular untruths

Published July 28, 2015 11:57AM (EDT)

Scott Walker                     (Reuters/Carlos Barria)
Scott Walker (Reuters/Carlos Barria)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNetThe ink is barely dry on the bill Scott Walker signed outlawing abortion for Wisconsin women, including victims of rape and incest, after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In Georgia, Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter is trying to introduce legislation that would halt federal funds for Planned Parenthood after a deceptive and misleading “sting” video went viral. In June, murder charges against Kenlissia Jones, who terminated her pregnancy using pills bought on the Internet, were finally dropped after much public outcry. And Paul Joseph Wieland, a local Missouri state representative and current holder of the Most Embarrassing Dad of the Year Award, is trying to get a court to block his adult daughters’ insurance from providing them with birth control. Adult daughters, you guys.

I’m leaving a lot out. But even with just a few examples plucked from hundreds, it’s clear that abortion foes are coming at women from all sides, actively doing everything they can to stymie reproductive justice using any means at their disposal. One third of American women will have abortions in their lifetime, and they currently face obstacles rivaled only by those in place during the pre-Roe v. Wade era. The campaign against abortion is riddled with both mis- and disinformation, or what in plainspeak might be referred to as “myths” and “lies.”

So let’s clear up a least a few of these. There are so many demonstrably false "facts” being generated by anti-choicers that a point-by-point rebuttal is impossible to compile into a single list. But we can tackle at least some of the more popular untruths. To that end, here is a list of the seven biggest myths about abortion.

1. Myth: Women regret their abortions.

Concern trolling is one of anti-choicers' favorite methods for attempting to shut down arguments in favor of reproductive rights. The fallacious suggestion is that women who have elective abortions suffer painful psychological consequences ranging from depression to anxiety to guilt to social isolation (aka the Won’t someone think of the women? argument). But in study after study, when women who have had abortions are allowed to speak for themselves (and really, they should know better than anyone), the opposite turns out to be true.

It’s extremely rare for women to feel post-abortion regret, and when they do, they still identify their choice as having been the right one. A 2000 study conducted by UC Santa Barbara found a full two years after having abortions, “72 percent of women were satisfied with their decision; 69 percent said they would have the abortion again; 72 percent reported more benefit than harm from their abortion; and 80 percent were not depressed.” Only 1 percent reported PTSD, compared with 11 percent of “women of the same age in the general population.” Another 2013 study found 90 percent of women reported feelings of relief following an abortion, while “those denied the abortion felt more regret and anger...and less relief and happiness.”

three-year study from just this month with an assessment of factors including age, race, education and socioeconomic background found, across the board, “95 percent of participants reported abortion was the right decision, with the typical participant having a >99 percent chance of reporting the abortion decision was right for her.”

2. Myth: Abortions are unsafe.

The myth that abortion is a dangerous procedure proliferates in anti-choice circles, and is propagated by the same. It’s a fairly pernicious lie that is intended to make women considering an abortion literally fear for their lives. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a 2012 study assessing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Guttmacher Institute found that actually giving birth is far likelier to kill a woman than having an abortion. In the words of researchers, “risk of death associated with childbirth is approximately 14 times higher than that with abortion.” First-trimester abortions have a complication rate of less than .05 percent, making it one of the safest procedures available. Having a colonoscopy puts one's life more at risk than an abortion by a factor of 40 timesTime magazine noted last year that the CDC reported, “.67 deaths per 100,000 abortions” between 2003 and 2009, a year in which eight women died as a result of the procedure.

Certainly, we would all prefer it if there were zero deaths associated with terminating a pregnancy, but there seems to be bias in the reactions to those deaths — at least among anti-choice advocates — and fatalities resulting from other causes. To quote Time, “compare [those numbers] with fatal reactions to penicillin, which occur in 1 case per 50-100,000 courses. And what about Viagra? According to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, it has a death rate of 5 per 100,000 prescriptions. But you don’t find legislators calling for a ban on Viagra."

3. Myth: Abortion causes breast cancer.

Although this claim has been thoroughly disproven by a little thing called science, anti-choicers continue to use it to prop up their reasons for opposing safe, legal abortion. In most cases, they ignore the glut of research by well-respected medical groups (including studies by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists , National Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center and Harvard Medical School) in favor of studies that fail to properly employ the scientific method in order to arrive at the conclusion they prefer. (For a great, detailed explanation of the many fronts on which one of their most referenced studies fails, check out this Joyce Arthur piece on the RH Reality Check blog.)

The Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer at Oxford College in England, which examined the results of 53 different studies of roughly 83,000 women with breast cancer conducted in 16 countries, determined that “the totality of worldwide epidemiological evidence indicates that pregnancies ending as either spontaneous or induced abortions do not have adverse effects on women’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

4. Myth: Abortion, particularly multiple abortions, can cause infertility.

This is, apparently, a belief that grew out of some now-dated ideas once rooted in truth. A 2010 Jezebel article investigating infertility and abortion found that procedural changes in how abortions are performed explain why the connection no longer exists. More specifically, while abortions up until the late 1960s used D&C (or dilation and curettage) to terminate pregnancies, by the early 1970s, vacuum aspiration became — and today remains — the predominate abortion method. The reduction in scarring and other complications that resulted from this shift helped eliminate infertility as a risk of abortion.

Ann Davis, associate professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology at Columbia University Medical Center and consulting medical director of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health told Jezebel, "There is no impact of repeat abortion on fertility." This is echoed in a Guttmacher Institute survey of scientific studies on the topic which found that “vacuum aspiration...poses virtually no long-term risks of future fertility-related problems such as infertility.”

5. Myth: Abortions are happening more than ever.

Women are having fewer legal abortions than they’ve had in 25 years. The number of legal abortions performed across the United States each year has been dwindling since the 1980s, and is currently down 12 percent from as recently as 2010. The Atlantic attributes this decline to a number of possible reasons: expanded access to birth control and sexual health resources and information; a precipitous drop in the teen pregnancy rates; millennial attitudes toward abortion (one study finds a surprising 42 percent against); and the astonishing number of recent anti-abortion measures put in place.

The only states with notable abortion increases were Michigan and Louisiana, where abortions increased by 18.5 percent and 12 percent, respectively. In recent years, both states have passed legislation limiting reproductive justice. The shift in numbers is likely due, in part, to an influx of women from neighboring states where abortion access has been even more severely limited. Though it’s incredibly difficult to accurately assess the number of illegal, or DIY, abortions happening as a result of women purchasing abortion-inducing drugs via the Internet, a New Republic investigation suggests that “the proliferation of online dispensers suggests a rising demand.” Which leads naturally to the next point.

6. Myth: Outlawing abortion means women will stop getting abortions.

According to a report by the Guttmacher Institute, “[e]stimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year.” Because these abortions were primarily conducted in secrecy through underground channels, they were impossible to regulate, and the back alley abortion industry often employed methods that sound horrific to modern ears. (A gynecologist who practiced in the late 1940s and early ‘50s and often saw women hospitalized after experiencing complications from illegal abortions, paints a vivid and disturbing picture of procedures using coat hangers, “darning needles, crochet hooks, cut-glass salt shakers, soda bottles, sometimes intact, sometimes with the top broken off.”) The human cost of these abortions, undergone by desperate women, was nothing short of tragic.

In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women—nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. The death toll had declined to just under 1,700 by 1940, and to just over 300 by 1950 (most likely because of the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, which permitted more effective treatment of the infections that frequently developed after illegal abortion). By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17 percent of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.

The lesson seems obvious: women without access to safe, legal abortion will find a way, even if it means imperiling their own health. As Guttmacher notes:

Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, the abortion rate is high, at 29 and 32 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and Latin America, respectively — regions where abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. In Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the abortion rate is 12 per 1,000.

It seems clear that stricter access to safe, legal abortion, as well as the continuing stigmatizing of the procedure, unsafe, illegal abortions — including those done at home thanks to the Internet — will continue to rise.

7. Myth: Abortion is racist.

It seems odd that conservatives express such outrage and concern about racism and its effects on fetuses of color, since they oppose pretty much every policy that might actually help African-American babies living outside the womb. In any case, much of this oft-repeated claim is rooted in the words of Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood who was possibly a racist and definitely into eugenics. (Read her words for yourself and decide. The point is moot in relation to where I’m going here.)

What is certain is that anti-choicers’ party lines about the state of abortion and women of color today are flat wrong. Neither Sanger’s first birth control clinics nor the majority of today’s clinics are located in predominately black neighborhoods; estimates actually place the number at around 9 percent. As Jezebel points out, African Americans comprise 15 percent of Planned Parenthood’s clients, which approximates their percentage in the U.S. general population (and anyway, abortion accounts for only 3 percent of PP's services offered). It’s true that black women, followed by Hispanics/Latinas, have the highest rates of abortion (at nearly five  times and double that of white women, respectively, across the socioeconomic board. When looking specifically at women living under the poverty level, Hispanic women have the highest rates of abortion).

But considering what we know about the relative wealth of black and Hispanic homes compared with white homes, the disparities fit into a more comprehensive picture. With less access to family planning, health insurance and financial resources in general (most women cite lack of money as the motivation for terminating their pregnancies), the result is a predictable and correlating higher number of unintended and unwanted pregnancies. Conservatives don’t talk about unwanted pregnancies in this way, because it would mean acknowledging structural racism.

And, really, none of us should hold our breaths waiting for that to happen.

By Kali Holloway

Kali Holloway is the senior director of Make It Right, a project of the Independent Media Institute. She co-curated the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s MetLiveArts 2017 summer performance and film series, “Theater of the Resist.” She previously worked on the HBO documentary Southern Rites, PBS documentary The New Public and Emmy-nominated film Brooklyn Castle, and Outreach Consultant on the award-winning documentary The New Black. Her writing has appeared in AlterNet, Salon, the Guardian, TIME, the Huffington Post, the National Memo, and numerous other outlets.

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