by Harini Chakravarthy
“But need alone is not enough to set power free: there must be knowledge.”
-Ursula K.Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
A heart-wrenching agony. A practical choice. A relief. A regret.
The decision to terminate a pregnancy can be many things. I have had to face this decision in my life and, during that tumultuous period, the one thing I relied on was access to medically accurate information. Unfortunately, for many women, access to accurate facts about pregnancy termination is difficult to get.
No matter where you stand on the moral, religious, and ethical issues surrounding abortion, we all stand to lose if scientific facts are distorted to influence our decision about any medical procedure, including abortion. And, given that the anti-abortion movement has picked up momentum in recent years (as evidenced by a number of ongoing supreme court cases), it is vitally important that the spread of abortion-related information is accurate and can facilitate informed and responsible decision making. Unfortunately, this ideal may not represent reality. A group of mostly Christian non-profit organizations in the U.S., called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), often misrepresents medical facts relating to abortion, according to medical experts who have studied them. CPCs are an attractive resource for low-income women. They often offer free pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, baby clothes and diapers, and emotional support for pregnant women.
But consider this statement obtained from a CPC website in California:
“Abortion is more dangerous than childbirth.”
Abortion is in fact safer than childbirth. The risk of mortality from childbirth is ~14 times higher than the risk of a medically induced abortion. Because it is likely not common knowledge, women seeking assistance from CPCs could easily be misinformed, leading to irrevocable consequences.
In 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled that CPCs are not obligated to disclose that they are not medically licensed facilities or to provide information about abortion access. Thus, women often mistakenly believe that they are talking to licensed medical providers. Multiple studies and reports have documented the abortion misinformation that CPCs continue to disseminate. It is vital that women get the facts about abortion so that they can make this important medical decision based on accurate information. Recent legal developments in the US put the urgency and importance of addressing this issue into perspective.
In the past year alone, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Georgia passed laws banning abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, approximately six weeks into pregnancy – a time when many women don’t even know that they are pregnant. Erroneous information provided by CPCs could delay a woman’s ability to learn about her pregnancy options, which could result in women missing state-set deadlines to abortion access.
This is deeply problematic given that CPCs outnumber abortion-providing facilities nearly two to one in the U.S and represent a significant source of information and resources for the women who visit them. Moreover, although CPCs provide some support for pregnant women, they do not offer prenatal or medical care, and their services typically do not extend beyond pregnancy. In fact, medical experts argue that the aim of the CPCs seems to be to dissuade women from getting abortions by providing them unsubstantiated information.
For instance, the CPCs in Bakersfield and Fresno in California inaccurately imply that abortion is associated with an increased risk of depression, mental health problems, and drug and alcohol abuse. It’s not, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), UK Royal College of Psychiatrists, and Royal college of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
A Yuba City CPC in California claims it can reverse a medically induced abortion. This is not based on science and does not meet clinical standards, says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). A clinical trial assessing the efficacy of the reversal treatment had to be halted because of safety concerns.
A CPC in Gilroy, California suggests that the pills as well as the commonly used Dilation and Curettage (D&C) procedure to induce abortions can cause excessive bleeding, sometimes for weeks. They can, but only in rare circumstances. Most women return to their normal activities within a few hours to days. Directly relevant are the Supreme Court cases striking down laws in Texas, Wisconsin, Mississippi, and most recently, in Louisiana, that require abortion-providing doctors to have local admitting privileges (the right conferred by a hospital upon a doctor to admit patients). The laws argued that this would make it easier to admit patients in case of abortion complications, despite scientific consensus that abortions rarely result in medical complications like excessive bleeding which might necessitate hospitalization . In fact, the Supreme Court ruled that all it did was present an undue burden on women seeking abortion without providing any meaningful health benefits.
Finally, this misinformation campaign is far from being restricted to California. For example, Save-a-life family Hope Center in Alabama, a state which is set to ban abortions at all stages of pregnancy almost without exception, implies incorrectly that abortions can cause heavy bleeding and organ damage. Paulding Pregnancy Services in Georgia, where abortion is outlawed after 6 weeks of pregnancy, claims without evidence that abortion can have physical, emotional and psychological consequences. This pattern of misinformation has been found in crisis pregnancy centers all across the country.
My own ability to make a decision regarding my pregnancy was not clouded by misinformation. My doctor was not constrained from providing me with clear and accurate facts about my options, whether it was about coping with a miscarriage, inducing an abortion, or obtaining prenatal care during a pregnancy. I was in a position to know the facts.
But many women are bombarded with misinformation during this often challenging and vulnerable period in their lives. Today, all of us in the world are in a similarly vulnerable state as we experience a barrage of misinformation during a global pandemic. This too greatly endangers our health. We must challenge misinformation with the truth every time we encounter it. It is said, “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Let us be revolutionaries, then.
Harini Chakravarthy is a Biomarker Operations Manager at Genentech and Science Writer for the Stanford Diabetes Research Center.
This piece was published in partnership with the NPR Scicommers Program.
For more information:
- The Guttmacher Institute describes the public health risks posed by crisis pregnancy centers
- This study examines the misinformation provided by crisis pregnancy center websites in Georgia
- A research paper in the journal Contraception surveyed the content of crisis pregnancy centers from 12 states in the US