Mendacity Exposed: Researcher Debunks the Big Lie on Abortion and Mental Health

Jodi Jacobson

Increasingly our politics and policies are shaped by lies and misinformation spread with the purpose of supporting a political agenda.  The issue of abortion and mental health--discussed in this weekend's Washington Post--illustrates the case.

We live in a mendocracy.

As in: rule by liars.

These are the words of Rick Pearlstein writing in the Daily Beast about the complicity of both the Obama Administration and the mainstream media in perpetuating lies about Obama’s policies told by the far right during midterm election campaigns. These lies shaped public opinion and as a result, the outcome of the election.

“When one side breaks the social contract,” he continues, “and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes “uncivil” to call out liars, lying becomes free.”

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Pearlstein’s analysis can easily be extrapolated to the failure of mainstream media–and of government officials–to do their job in the debate around abortion in the United States, as was forcefully and eloquently argued in the Washington Post this past Sunday by Brenda Major, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Major writes about the distortion of scientific principles and research findings in one of the “newer” battles in abortion care, that which focuses on “harms” done to women who choose not to continue an unwanted or untenable pregnancy.  As we’ve reported here extensively on a state-by-state basis, and as Major points out in her article, under the banner of “a woman’s right to know” a number of states (Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and West Virginia) have passed laws mandating that women seeking abortions be told that abortion is associated with mental health risks that include post-traumatic stress and a greater danger of suicide.

Except that it is patently untrue.

“It’s commendable to help women make an informed choice,” writes Major. “But an informed choice requires accurate information. And these laws mandate that women be misled.” [emphasis added].

Rigorous U.S. scientific studies have not substantiated the claim that abortion, compared with its alternatives, causes an increased incidence of mental health problems. The same conclusion was reached in 2008 by an American Psychological Association task force, which I chaired, as well as by an independent team of scholars at Johns Hopkins University. As recently as September, Oregon State University researchers announced the results of a national study showing that teenagers who have an abortion are no more likely to become depressed or to have low self-esteem one year or five years later, compared with their peers who deliver.

In other words, just like the case of the midterms in which a large share of the electorate believed “facts” about Obama’s policies that had no basis in, well, fact, “the claim that abortion harms women’s mental health persists,” states Major, despite scientific research and evidence completely debunking these claims.

Instead, as with other restrictions on women’s access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care:

“Promoting this claim is part of a political strategy aimed at dissuading women from terminating a pregnancy and at making abortions difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. It is a strategy that distorts scientific principles, even as it uses the umbrella of scientific research to advance its aims.

Major points out two logical flaws in the arguments made by anti-choice proponents.

First “is a confusion of correlation with causation.” As part of their strategy, some anti-choice advocates “scour” existing data for evidence linking abortion and a wide variety of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and alcohol use. They cite any correlations they find as evidence that abortion causes harm to women.”

But “the most plausible explanation for the association that some studies find between abortion and mental health is that it reflects preexisting differences between women who continue a pregnancy and those who end one.”

A substantial amount of research shows that women who deliver babies are, on average, more likely to have planned and wanted their pregnancies and to feel emotionally and financially capable of becoming a mother. In contrast, women who seek abortions are, on average, less likely to be married or involved in an intimate relationship, more likely to be poor, and more likely to have suffered physical or psychological abuse. All of these latter qualities are risk factors for poor mental health.

Laws such as those in Nebraska ignore the fact that “the very characteristics that predispose women to emotional or mental health problems following an abortion also predispose them to postpartum depression if they deliver or to mental health problems in general, even if they do not become pregnant.”  Of course, if you’re worried about women you’d then also want to screen women for postpartum depression to assist them after birth. None of the laws in question do.

The second logical flaw in these campaigns “involves what psychologists call the “availability heuristic.””

Essentially, it means that vivid, first-person accounts that can be easily brought to mind, such as the personal stories of women who feel harmed by abortion, influence our estimates of the frequency of an event more than dry, statistical data do. For example, people think the probability of dying by homicide is greater than that of dying by stomach cancer, even though the rate of death by the latter is five times higher than death by the former. They err because examples of homicide are easier to recall than examples of stomach cancer.

In just this way, she underscores, “the emotionally evocative stories of a minority of women can lead people to overestimate the frequency of those experiences.”

Citing her own research, Major writes:

[B]ased on clinic interviews in the 1990s with more than 400 women who obtained a first-trimester abortion, shows that women who terminate an unplanned pregnancy report a range of feelings, including sadness and loss as well as relief. Nonetheless, two years after their abortion, most women say they would make the same decision if they had it to do over again under the same circumstances. Because of the stigma attached to abortion in our society, however, most women feel they can’t talk about their abortions – unless they repent. [emphasis added].

Yet despite the evidence, claims about the adverse effects on women of abortion are widespread and rarely challenged by the mainstream media.  In fact, they are, to the contrary, perpetuated by the media. 

For example, unsubstantiated claims about mental health were rife in debates about Nebraska’s abortion law, yet few if any stories generated by media outside the reproductive health community pointed to the lack of any evidence to support the claims on which the law was being written. Moreover, when quoting “experts,” equal time was often given to those who had no evidence to back up their claims as to those with knowledge of solid research and evidence on these issues, implying that the “viewpoints” or blatant misinformation spread by one set of actors were of equal merit to peer-reviewed research and data, even when that data proved otherwise. 

A similar failure of media responsibility occurrs with claims about “fetal pain,” a claim made by anti-choicers for which there is no evidence.  Recently, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section gave a platform to each of two anti-choice advocates who spread misinformation on fetal pain (among a range of other things), Charles Camosy and Jill Stanek.  These are people whose agenda it is to deprive women of their agency in making choices for themselves about when, whether, and with whom to bear a child, and use wild and unsubstantiated claims in doing so, yet get space in “venerated” papers such as the Post. It does not suffice to say, “well, the Post also published Brenda Major’s article,” because again that is drawing equivalency between people who use lies to push for policies that accord with their own ideological agenda, and those who seek to inform public policy based on the best available evidence.  What standard is the Post accountable for when publishing people who are using religion and ideology as a means of depriving women (gay people, teens, prisoners, others) of their rights using unsupported claims?  Is it enough to articulate a “religious view” as a marker of legitimacy?  If the Catholic Church tomorrow decided it once again supported the view that the earth is flat, would the Post give the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops a page to argue that, and leave it unanswered?

False claims and lies used to advance political and ideological agendas are a central component of the anti-choice uber-strategy, but these same efforts to distract, deflect, and misinform are becoming an increasingly prevalent and uncontested characteristic of our social discourse more broadly–on gay rights, immigrants rights, climate change and inequality, among other areas of concern. In the abortion debate as in the political debate writ large, campaigns gear up to “inform” through misinformation leading to “misinformed choices” that comport with the agendas of those in power or who wish to be in power.  As our “mendocracy” has become more and more entrenched, Pearlstein states at Daily Beast: “Governing has become impossible.”  These trends endanger and diminish all of us and undermine the very fabric of a society seeking to survive and prosper.  It is up to each of us to protest the “age of misinformation” and stop it in its tracks.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Republican National Convention Edition

Ally Boguhn

The Trump family's RNC claims about crime and the presidential candidate's record on gender equality have kept fact-checkers busy.

Republicans came together in Cleveland this week to nominate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention (RNC), generating days of cringe-inducing falsehoods and misleading statements on crime, the nominee’s positions on gender equality, and LGBTQ people.

Trump’s Acceptance Speech Blasted for Making False Claims on Crime

Trump accepted the Republican nomination in a Thursday night speech at the RNC that drew harsh criticism for many of its misleading and outright false talking points.

Numerous fact-checkers took Trump to task, calling out many of his claims for being “wrong,” and “inflated or misleading.”

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 Among the most hotly contested of Trump’s claims was the assertion that crime has exploded across the country.

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” Trump claimed, according to his prepared remarks, which were leaked ahead of his address. “Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore.”

Crime rates overall have been steadily declining for years.

“In 2015, there was an uptick in homicides in 36 of the 50 largest cities compared to the previous years. The rate did, indeed, increase nearly 17 percent, and it was the worst annual change since 1990. The homicide rate was up 54.3 percent in Washington, and 58.5 percent in Baltimore,” explained Washington Post fact checkers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. “But in the first months of 2016, homicide trends were about evenly split in the major cities. Out of 63 agencies reporting to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, 32 cities saw a decrease in homicides in first quarter 2016 and 31 saw an increase.”

Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said in a statement posted to the organization’s website that 2016 statistics aren’t sufficient in declaring crime rate trends. 

“Overall, crime rates remain at historic lows. Fear-inducing soundbites are counterproductive, and distract from nuanced, data-driven, and solution-oriented conversations on how to build a smarter criminal justice system in America,” Grawert said. “It’s true that some cities saw an increase in murder rates last year, and that can’t be ignored, but it’s too early to say if that’s part of a national trend.” 

When Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, was confronted with the common Republican falsehoods on crime during a Thursday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, he claimed that the FBI’s statistics were not to be trusted given that the organization recently advised against charges in connection with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

“According to FBI statistics, crime rates have been going down for decades,” Tapper told Manafort. “How can Republicans make the argument that it’s somehow more dangerous today when the facts don’t back that up?”

“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” said Manafort, going on to claim that “the FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they did with Hillary Clinton.”

There was at least one notable figure who wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s fearmongering: former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. “Great Trump Speech,” tweeted Duke on Thursday evening. “Couldn’t have said it better!”

Ben Carson Claims Transgender People Are Proof of “How Absurd We Have Become”

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson criticized the existence of transgender people while speaking at the Florida delegation breakfast on Tuesday in Cleveland.  

“You know, we look at this whole transgender thing, I’ve got to tell you: For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is. And now, all of a sudden we don’t know anymore,” said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. “Now, is that the height of absurdity? Because today you feel like a woman, even though everything about you genetically says that you’re a man or vice versa?”

“Wouldn’t that be the same as if you woke up tomorrow morning after seeing a movie about Afghanistan or reading some books and said, ‘You know what? I’m Afghanistan. Look, I know I don’t look that way. My ancestors came from Sweden, or something, I don’t know. But I really am. And if you say I’m not, you’re a racist,’” Carson said. “This is how absurd we have become.”

When confronted with his comments during an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Carson doubled down on his claims.“There are biological markers that tell us whether we are a male or a female,” said Carson. “And just because you wake up one day and you say, ‘I think I’m the other one,’ that doesn’t change it. Just, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

“It’s not as if they woke up one day and decided, ‘I’m going to be a male or I’m going to be a female,’” Couric countered, pointing out that transgender people do not suddenly choose to change their gender identities on a whim.

Carson made several similar comments last year while on the campaign trail.

In December, Carson criticized the suggested that allowing transgender people into the military amounted to using the armed services “as a laboratory for social experimentation.”

Carson once suggested that allowing transgender people to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity amounted to granting them “extra rights.”

Ivanka Trump Claims Her Father Supports Equal Pay, Access to Child Care

Ivanka Trump, the nominee’s daughter, made a pitch during her speech Thursday night at the RNC for why women voters should support her father.

“There have always been men of all background and ethnicities on my father’s job sites. And long before it was commonplace, you also saw women,” Ivanka Trump said. “At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.” 

“As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put into place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce. And he will focus on making quality child care affordable and accessible for all,” she continued before pivoting to address the gender wage gap. 

“Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm. Politicians talk about wage equality, but my father has made it a practice at his company throughout his entire career.”

However, Trump’s stated positions on the gender wage gap, pregnancy and mothers in the workplace, and child care don’t quite add up to the picture the Trumps tried to paint at the RNC.

In 2004, Trump called pregnancy an “inconvenience” for employers. When a lawyer asked for a break during a deposition in 2011 to pump breast milk, Trump reportedly called her “disgusting.”

According to a June analysis conducted by the Boston Globe, the Trump campaign found that men who worked on Trump’s campaign “made nearly $6,100, or about 35 percent more [than women during the April payroll]. The disparity is slightly greater than the gender pay gap nationally.”

A former organizer for Trump also filed a discrimination complaint in January, alleging that she was paid less than her male counterparts.

When Trump was questioned about equal pay during a campaign stop last October, he did not outline his support for policies to address the issue. Instead, Trump suggested that, “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Though he had previously stated that men and women who do the same job should be paid the same during an August 2015 interview on MSNBC, he also cautioned that determining whether people were doing the same jobs was “tricky.”

Trump has been all but completely silent on child care so far on the campaign trail. In contrast, Clinton released an agenda in May to address the soaring costs of child care in the United States.

Ivanka’s claims were not the only attempt that night by Trump’s inner circle to explain why women voters should turn to the Republican ticket. During an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Manafort said that women would vote for the Republican nominee because they “can’t afford their lives anymore.”

“Many women in this country feel they can’t afford their lives, their husbands can’t afford to be paying for the family bills,” claimed Manafort. “Hillary Clinton is guilty of being part of the establishment that created that problem. They’re going to hear the message. And as they hear the message, that’s how we are going to appeal to them.”

What Else We’re Reading

Vox’s Dara Lind explained how “Trump’s RNC speech turned his white supporters’ fear into a weapon.”

Now that Mike Pence is the Republican nominee for vice president, Indiana Republicans have faced “an intense, chaotic, awkward week of brazen lobbying at the breakfast buffet, in the hallways and on the elevators” at the convention as they grapple with who will run to replace the state’s governor, according to the New York Times.

“This is a party and a power structure that feels threatened with extinction, willing to do anything for survival,” wrote Rebecca Traister on Trump and the RNC for New York Magazine. “They may not love Trump, but he is leading them precisely because he embodies their grotesque dreams of the restoration of white, patriarchal power.”

Though Trump spent much of the primary season denouncing big money in politics, while at the RNC, he courted billionaires in hopes of having them donate to supporting super PACs.

Michael Kranish reported for the Washington Post that of the 2,472 delegates at the RNC, it is estimated that only 18 were Black.

Cosmopolitan highlighted nine of the most sexist things that could be found at the convention.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked, “Where are these contributions that have been made” by people of color to civilization?