Answer: nothing. Except for anti-choice fanatics, who must realize on some level that Casey Anthony gives lie to their whole argument that every sexually active woman is ready to be a mother, and just needs a little force to see it.
What does the Casey Anthony case have to do with abortion? To people whose common sense and ability to feel empathy haven’t been distorted by a misogynist ideology, the answer is “Nothing.” Either, as the prosecution claims, Anthony brutally murdered her little girl Caylee, or, as the defense claims, Caylee died by accident and Anthony helped cover it up out of fear of her father. Either way, nothing to do with abortion.
Abortion terminates a pregnancy, and in the vast majority of cases, it’s terminating a pregnancy before the embryo or fetus has even developed much in the way of brain tissue, much less the ability to feel, think, have desires, feel pain, be afraid, or be happy–things an actual infant is still developing the capacity to do as is a small child. Most people with common sense grasp this intuitively, which is why we don’t have funerals for miscarriages or celebrate “conception” days instead of birth days. Most of us also have enough empathy to imagine that Caylee’s final moments were, regardless of how they came about, terrifying and tragic. Most of us are serious enough people not to discount the tragedy of Caylee’s death by comparing it to an ordinary medical procedure that one in three American women will get in their lifetimes.
In fact, this is so obvious that I assumed that even anti-choicers had to get it. And I honestly thought they had! Even after the verdict came out and I started getting weird tweets from conservatives claiming that I supported Casey Anthony, I didn’t think about this in terms of abortion. I assumed that their hobbled thinking went like this: “Casey Anthony has been portrayed as a big ol’ slut in the media. Big ol’ sluts threaten me. So do feminists. Feminists are therefore big ol’ sluts, and have Slutwalks to prove it. Being a slut equals being a murderer, or at least that’s what Nancy Grace tells me, and so voila! If you’re a feminist, you support killing two-year-olds.”
For the record, I suspect that Anthony actually is guilty, and believe the jury when they say they think she probably is but that the prosecution didn’t prove its case. If she is, it is indeed a shame that she won’t be seeing decades in prison for her crime. Her choices of who to sleep with when and how to be sexual have exactly nothing to do with this.
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But then I got tweets referencing Anthony and abortion. And I thought, “Really? They’re going to go there?” I’m never one to expect members of the forced birth brigade to actually have a sense of common sense and decency—we’re talking people who treat childbirth like a punishment God doles out for screwing—but they usually have enough sense to conceal how nasty they are in order to be taken seriously by the public at large. You’d think they’d realize how it looks to use the actual death of an actual person who actually suffered and who actually lived to publicize their belief that we should force women to bring forth potential people, whether they want to or not.
This is incredibly stupid, and I have to imagine they know it’s stupid. It makes you look callous and exploitative. It also makes anti-choicers look like they get more incensed that a woman might go out and party than that she might have murdered someone. Stanek’s priorities were evident when, in the wake of the verdict, she didn’t ask the important questions such as, “Why did the jury feel there was reasonable doubt?”, but instead, “Will Casey go back to the partying lifestyle and find a guy to take care of her?”
Or take one of the guys STFU, Conservatives chronicled saying, “Casey Anthony is a stupid whore….but look at the bright side, when she’s partying her first weekend out of jail and gets pregnant she’ll probably just have an abortion and it’ll all be legal….” You get the strong impression that while anti-choicers aren’t happy that a woman might be getting away with murder, the idea that a woman might party and get away with it is what’s really raising their blood pressure.
This is really stupid and I have to imagine they know how it looks. My theory is they just can’t help themselves. This case must cause a lot of cognitive dissonance for anti-choicers. First of all, you have the question of punishment. The standard anti-choice argument is both that abortion is a mother murdering her child but also that she should face no legal penalty for it. But this case shows how incoherent that belief is, since our society does think that women who actually murder their children should go to prison for it. Subsequently, it becomes clear that anti-choicers don’t really think abortion is murder and have no intention of treating it like murder.
But there’s something deeper going on. The anti-choice narrative, if I were to boil it down, goes something like this: “Young women, poisoned by feminists to believe they’re the equal to men, go around slutting it up until God punishes them with an unwanted pregnancy. If we banned abortion, these women would be forced to have their babies, but as soon as the babies came out of them, they would be transformed into loving mothers. They would stop being sluts and instead get married and spend the rest of their days in a holy glow of joy having accepted their role as nurturers and help-meets, and having left their sinful days behind them.” The justification for this is “Leave It To Beaver.”
But Anthony’s case gives lie to all that. Whether or not she murdered her daughter or just covered up her death, Casey Anthony was obviously not ready to be a mother, and the anti-choice contention that you can make someone be ready for motherhood by applying force has been demonstrated to be a lie. I suspect they get that this whole case is really not helping their argument that the best solution for teenage girls who get pregnant from one night stands is compulsory motherhood. And it draws attention to the fact that compulsory motherhood is not only bad for women, but it’s really bad for children. It reminds people, in the starkest terms possible, that children are better off if they’re wanted and born to people ready to care for them. This troubling realization, I suspect, accounts for the ill-advised flip-out over this case, when cooler heads would suggest they lay low until all this blows over.
This is a story about Dr. John Thorp and a Missing Decimal Point, an odd mystery that raises questions about when an error becomes a lie, and when—in the context of court proceedings—a lie becomes perjury.
This is a story about the Case of the Missing Decimal Point, an odd mystery that, on my reading, exemplifies the problem with the bogus “science” that underpins the majority of anti-choice legislation. It’s a case that raises questions about when an error becomes a lie, and when—in the context of court proceedings—a lie becomes perjury.
Meet our protagonist, a certain Dr. John Thorp, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Medicine; deputy director of UNC’s Center of Women’s Health Research; member of the editorial boards of the Obstetric and Gynecological Survey and the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology; and a member of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for more than 20 years.
And also, serial butcher of the facts when it comes to the safety of abortion care in the United States.
Thorp is important because he’s one of a small handful of peripheral doctors and scientists trotted out by lawmakers who are hell-bent on destroying the constitutional right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. States have paid thousands of dollars to Thorp and his ilk for their “evidence” in legislative hearings and court cases. Like climate change denialists, these “experts” turn up to contradict the overwhelming scientific consensus about abortion, creating the false impression of medical debate.
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In multiple court cases, Thorp has presented an expert report that claims the complication rate from abortion is between 2 and 10 percent. The cases have all involved admitting privileges laws—laws that require abortion providers to be authorized by local hospitals to admit patients to their emergency rooms. These laws make zero sense for the following reason: they’re unnecessary because the staff at the emergency rooms admit patients to the emergency rooms. Admitting privileges for abortion providers are wholly redundant. They also reflect the antiquated “country-doctor” model of medicine under which a physician who performs the initial procedure would consistently provide care for any complications that may arise afterwards. It’s a model that does not reflect twenty-first century medicine as it relates to low-risk procedures like abortion: EMTs transport patients to the closest available emergency room usually without concern for whether the doctor who performed the procedure is authorized to admit patients to that particular hospital.
Undeterred by reason or reality, anti-choice lawmakers have consistently claimed that these laws are necessary due to false claims about the danger of abortions. Thorp has been one of the only witnesses willing to give evidence to support those claims. Specifically, he has claimed that the high complication rate justifies the admitting privileges requirements.
This claim was contested by an expert for plaintiffs, Dr. Douglas Laube, as well as a neutral court-appointed expert, Dr. Serdar Bulun. They each reviewed several studies, none of which found a complication rate greater than 1.9 percent for both first- and second-trimester abortions.
To underline how important this is, Thorp provided a range, not an average. And his range began at a higher number than the very highest complication rate found by the other experts. To put this in perspective, the Guttmacher Institute—recognized as an authority on abortion statistics—says the complication rate in first-trimester abortions (92 percent of abortions are performed during the first trimester) is closer to 0.05 percent, a minuscule risk.
During the colloquy with the court, a formal on-the-record conversation that District Court Judge William Conley convened in an attempt to reach a consensus between Thorp, Laube, and Bulun about abortion complication rates, Thorp repeated his claim that the abortion complication rate is 2 to 10 percent. He did not waiver from this claim.
When pressed at trial, however—a mere two and a half hours after the colloquy with the court—Carrie Flaxman, an attorney for Planned Parenthood, dragged the truth out of him.
“I want to turn back to your estimate of 2 to 10 percent complication rate, which you’ve now said in the courtroom for the first time is 0.2% to 10%; is that—am I getting that right?” Flaxman asked Thorp.
“Yes ma’am,” Thorp responded. “That thing misses a decimal.”
“You have a number of expert reports from other cases. They all miss a decimal, don’t they, sir?”
“They’re consistently missed [sic] the decimal,” Thorp replied.
That was Thorp’s scientifically rigorous explanation for his wildly inaccurate complication rate range: “That thing misses a decimal.” In other words, he inflated complication rates by a factor of ten and then continued repeating erroneous data.
“The court has several concerns with Dr. Thorp’s credibility,” Judge Conley wrote. “In light of the deep flaws in his analysis and his testimony, which often came off more as advocacy than expert opinion, the court finds little to credit Dr. Thorp’s opinions of the relative risks of abortion to child birth or comparable invasive procedures,” wrote Judge Conley.
Judge Conley went on to cast doubt over Thorp’s testimony in other cases, where states had also relied on his “expert” testimony to support bogus laws.
TIMELINE OF EVENTS
September 2013: Thorp submits an expert report in the Alabama lawsuit claiming that the abortion complication rate is between 2 and 10 percent.
November 2013: Thorp gives a deposition in the Alabama lawsuit and discovers the missing decimal point. He would later testify during the Alabama trial that he discovered the error at this time.
March 2014: Thorp submits an expert report in the Wisconsin lawsuit containing the incorrect percentage points.
April 2014: Thorp also submits to the court in Alabama a declaration containing the incorrect 2 to 10 percent abortion complication rate.
May 2014: In Wisconsin, Judge Conley holds a colloquy between plaintiff and defense experts at 8:00 a.m. on May 29 in an attempt to reach a consensus regarding abortion complication rates. During that colloquy, Thorp repeats the incorrect abortion complication rate.
May 2014: At 10:30 a.m.—an hour and a half after the colloquy with the court began, during which Thorp did not waiver from his claim that the abortion complication rate is 2 to 10 percent—Thorp takes the stand. During cross-examination, Thorp testifies that the 2 to 10 percent abortion complication rate is incorrect and that the correct rate is 0.2 to 10 percent.
July 2014: During the Alabama trial, Thorp testifies that he discovered the error with his complication rate—the missing decimal point—in November 2013.
“Dr. Thorp has not only been retained in a number of cases to provide testimony supporting abortion regulations, including similar challenges to admitting privileges requirements [in Alabama and Texas], but has also submitted amicus curiae briefs on his own behalf to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of abortion-related regulations.” (Emphasis in original.)
“His extensive involvement in lawsuits supporting abortion regulations calls into question his ability to separate personal beliefs from the medical science surrounding these regulations,” Judge Conley continued.
Shorter Conley: Thorp’s evidence is wrong, and he’s a biased witness. Pretty hard for an expert witness to recover from those blows. Indeed, Thorp seems to have become a liability for the state of Wisconsin.
It could have been worse, though.
As devastating as Judge Conley’s opinion is to Thorp’s credibility, he refrained from making any statements about Thorp’s honesty. He certainly could have, however, because on more than one occasion during the course of the Wisconsin lawsuit, Thorp submitted documents and offered to the court testimony containing false information.
And as we all know, knowingly submitting false information in a court has a special name. It’s called perjury, and it’s a crime. To be clear, we can’t know Thorp’s state of mind when he made these incorrect claims in Wisconsin in 2014. We asked him, via email, whether he could account for submitting erroneous information, but he didn’t reply.
Did Thorp make a simple mistake? After all, it would be very easy to type “2” instead of “0.2.” Or was there something more nefarious at play? If it were a simple mistake, why did Thorp continue to submit the erroneous information to more than one court after he was made aware of the mistake? More importantly, why did Thorp stick to the inflated complication rate when Judge Conley questioned him during the colloquy with the court?
Even the most cursory review of Thorp’s testimony raises serious ethical questions about the Case of the Missing Decimal Point.
Had Thorp been made aware of his mistake during the Wisconsin trial, and then made every effort to correct the misinformation, it would be easy to chalk up the Case of the Missing Decimal Point to human error.
But that’s not what happened.
In a phone interview with Rewire, Eric J. Segall, a professor at Georgia State University College of Law, who specializes in constitutional law, says Thorp’s repeated “errors” give the impression that there may be more at play than simple mistakes.
“If your facts are correct, it appears he misled the court in a kind of way that should get him into trouble. I think that’s pretty clear,” Segall said.
In fact, Thorp knew his previous testimony of an inaccurate complication rate was a gross exaggeration several months before he took the stand in May 2014 to advocate for Wisconsin’s admitting privileges law.
Five months after Thorp knew about the error, he nevertheless submitted to the Alabama court a declaration signed under penalty of perjury which contained the same falsehoods.
That’s either mighty forgetful, monstrously careless, or worse.
This led Myron Thompson, the District Court judge who struck down the Alabama law as unconstitutional in a whopping 172-page order, to write a supplemental opinion in which he discussed at length the admissibility of certain expert opinions, including Thorp’s. In that supplemental opinion, Judge Thompson wrote that “Thorp displayed a disturbing apathy toward the accuracy of his testimony.”
“In his expert report, [Thorp] opined that the low-end estimate of the complication rate was two percent, based on an article that he had written with the same claim. In fact, the range supported by his article is 0.2%,” Judge Thompson wrote. “Although he was confronted with the error during his November 2013 deposition, he submitted a declaration to the court in April 2014 that again claimed the two percent figure.”
Ultimately, Judge Thompson would discredit Thorp’s testimony on complication rates entirely. “Other choices that [Thorp] made in developing his estimates seem to be driven more by a bias against abortion and a desire to inflate complication rates than by a true desire to reach an accurate estimate of the dangerousness of abortion procedures.” (Emphasis added.)
And months after Judge Thompson discredited Thorp, Judge Conley would follow suit, writing there were “multiple errors in Dr. Thorp’s citations to studies that purportedly supported this range, and his methodology in compiling these statistics lacked analytical rigor.”
This point cannot be understated: Thorp submitted documents containing erroneous information to the court in Alabama. After being confronted about it in November 2013, Thorp continued to submit documents containing the same erroneous information, not just to the court in Alabama, but also to the court in Wisconsin.
Furthermore, when Thorp had an opportunity to clarify his error during the colloquy between experts and Judge Conley in the Wisconsin lawsuit, he did not do so.
Given the facts, the solution to the Case of the Missing Decimal Point seems fairly obvious.
Thorp has proven that he is either too incompetent to serve as an expert witness in these admitting privileges law cases, or worse—that he is purposefully misleading the court.
Yet, as we have seen with Vincent Rue—who continues to be paid thousands of dollars by states looking to defend abortion restrictions even though, as Kathryn Kolbert writes in Slate, he was thoroughly discredited in the trial court phase of Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992—states looking to restrict abortion access have no qualms about hiring experts of dubious trustworthiness.
As such, despite Thorp’s questionable behavior in the Alabama and Wisconsin lawsuits, there’s no guarantee that the next state to litigate the constitutionality of an admitting privilege law won’t call upon Thorp and pay him thousands of dollars to offer his “expert” opinion about abortion complication rates. And there’s also no guarantee that Thorp won’t continue submitting erroneous information to courts in an attempt to, as Judge Thompson aptly put it, “inflate complication rates.”
That states are wasting thousands of taxpayer dollars litigating laws like these and hiring discredited consultants and experts, like those found in Rewire’s gallery of False Witnesses, illustrates the indefensible nature of admitting privileges laws.
Professor Segall agrees. “These laws are so unrelated to anything resembling a legitimate medical interest that the state has to continue to rely on data that its own star witness should have known wasn’t accurate.”
“This is one more piece of evidence that the state’s data is wrong and that states should stop defending these laws,” Segall said.
As more of these admitting privileges laws wend their way through the courts, it’s important to realize that many of the so-called experts upon whom anti-choicers rely traffic in agenda-driven science and are not trustworthy. (It’s no surprise that Thorp is featured in the False Witnesses gallery.)
If Thorp had made one mistake, it would likely not be noteworthy. Everyone makes mistakes. Certainly no one, even the most reputable expert in a given field, is immune to the occasional error. But at what point does an error become a lie? And when courts are involved, at what point does a lie become perjury?
And at what point should taxpayers hold their state attorneys general accountable for paying thousands of dollars to an “expert” who has supplied misinformation to and been discredited by more than one court?
In the curious case of John Thorp and the Missing Decimal Point, these questions demand answers.
A lot of people's views on abortion could be described as “muddled." This is a fine way to view abortion when it comes to your own personal choices, but it creates problems when we're talking about policy.
When it comes to political activism, “pro-choice” and “pro-life” have definitive, clear-cut meanings. Pro-choicers stand for increased access to all forms of reproductive health care, including contraception and abortion. Activists who call themselves “pro-life” want to ban abortion and take a dim view of contraception access. (This is why pro-choicers call them “anti-choice,” because it’s frankly a more accurate description.) But when you step out of the world of those who are pushing for specific legislation or policy changes, you’ll find that a lot of people don’t think about this issue in such a binary way. Their views could be charitably described as “gray,” or more accurately as “muddled.” This is a fine way to view abortion when it comes to your own personal choices, but creates problems when we’re talking about policy.
Usually, Gallup polling—the most frequently referenced source on these issues—tends to ask average people to choose whether they’re “pro-choice” or “pro-life.” A recent poll performed by Vox, however, tried to get at a bit more nuance. When given more flexibility in how to answer, Vox found, four in ten Americans shunned simple categorization. Eighteen percent identified as “both” pro-choice and “pro-life”; another 21 percent identified as “neither.”
As Vox writer Sarah Kliff noted, it got even more complicated than even that. For instance, 28 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, “Abortion should be legal in almost all cases.” But far more were on board when they were reminded that women are involved; a full 37 percent agreed with the statement, “Women should have a legal right to safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases.”
The easy way to interpret this data is to decide that a lot of people love to opine on issues they’ve probably not given much thought to. But the reality is a bit more complex. The problem is that abortion is so often framed—in both the media and in everyday dinner-table discussions—as a moral issue instead of a health-care or legal issue. Because of this, when average people are asked about it, they tend to think in moral terms, often to the point where they forget that this is a legal question at all.
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When you ask when abortion should be “allowed,” people often mistake the question for one asking them when abortion is right. And so they treat the prospect much like you would if someone asked you when it’s OK to lie or to break up with someone—as if it’s a question of hypothetical morality, as opposed to a legal one.
Vox’s findings demonstrate how true this is. A lot of people wanted to spitball their ideas to Kliff about when abortion is justified and when it is not, without even considering whether their elaborate framework would be definable, much less enforceable, in the law. “I guess if you’re raped or in a desperate situation, then abortion would be the way to go,” one woman told her. “But if you’re just being careless and irresponsible, then I don’t think it’s the right decision.”
“I don’t agree with her decision, because she was being reckless,” another said about a friend who aborted, before going on to say she nonetheless understood that she couldn’t have the baby.
“I think in situations where it could be proved that the woman had control of the situation, they should not be allowed to abort the baby, because they were part of that conscious decision,” another man on the street told Kliff.
What becomes clear in these interviews—and in research conducted by Planned Parenthood that shows a similar “it depends on the reason” attitude toward abortion—is that what people are really passing judgment on is not the abortion itself, so much as the sex that caused the pregnancy in the first place. What one might delicately call “nuance” is, in reality, just the same old sex policing: a paranoia that women are escaping the “consequences” of having too much sex or the wrong kind of sex.
It’s the same story with the sentiment, “I could never do it, but it should be allowed,” which pops up in basically every casual discussion of abortion, whether it be online or off. In fact, a woman in the Vox video says it in so many words. While this has the virtue of being more generous and clear-headed on the legal issues, the essential premise is the same: The speaker wants you to know that while she’s pro-choice, she doesn’t want to be mistaken for one of those kinds of girls.
None of this is really that surprising, if you look at the larger context. Americans are confused, generally, about how we feel about sexuality, especially female sexuality. Women are supposed to be sexual but not too sexual, sexually available but not slutty. There are no hard-and-fast rules on the subject of respectability: Instead, where the “line” is and who has crossed it is entirely dependent on the gut feelings of the person passing judgment.
Naturally, prejudice strongly influences whether or not the self-appointed judge in question feels someone has crossed the slut barrier. Anyone who has had “slut” thrown at her by a man who was calling her an angel right up until she told him she wasn’t interested could tell you as much. How much sex is “too much” depends on whether your assessor likes you, how they feel about themselves, and probably their mood at that moment. Class and race, too, strongly impact who gets deemed sexually loose, or, as Kliff’s respondents might say, “careless,” “reckless,” or “irresponsible.”
With all this in mind, Kliff writes that abortion “is as complicated and personal an issue as they come.” Of course it is. All issues regarding sexuality are, especially when you invite people to compare themselves to others and pass judgment.
The problem is that the blunt instrument of abortion law has no interest in personal judgment and isn’t equipped to deal with complexity. The law cannot decide if someone’s forgoing of the condom was “reckless,” to use one of Kliff’s interviewee’s words, or understandable passion. The law is not interested in whether or not you think your friend is too quick to go to bed with a new guy and therefore should have felt worse about her abortion. The law is all about external, simplified parameters: How many weeks pregnant you are and whether you jumped through enough legal hoops to get the procedure. In fact, even though legislators sometimes try to delineate “acceptable” abortions by building rape exceptions into restrictions, the law is terrible at sorting out who gets one of these exceptions from who doesn’t.
None of these legal limits is remotely capable of differentiating whether a woman is “desperate” enough or whether others might deem her sexual encounter reckless or responsible. It’s natural for Americans in this muddy middle to assume that having some restrictions on abortion will sort the supposedly undeserving from the righteous, but the real world shows that is not the case at all. Still, unless they’re reminded of that fact, it’s unlikely that they’ll be compelled to come out swinging as legislators chip away at access.
There’s no quick-and-dirty solution to this situation. When you force people to think of abortion as a public health issue by asking questions or showing data that frames it that way, most people are pretty smart about the issue, opposing most of the restrictions anti-choicers would place on abortion. But then we all go straight back to talking about abortion as an abstract moral issue: a specialty of anti-choicers, who dwell endlessly about their personal values, as if those should matter one whit when it comes to someone else’s decision-making.
It’s absolutely true, then, that the recent surge in abortion story-telling is an important part of the long-term solution. After all, if people can stop stigmatizing the procedure, they’ll lose interest in supporting restrictions on it out of a misplaced hope that doing so will keep the “wrong” women from getting abortions. But in the meantime, it doesn’t hurt for pro-choicers to remind everyone, as much as possible, that whatever your personal feelings on abortion may be, basic human rights are at stake here.