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

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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.