Commentary Contraception

Lies, Lies and More Lies: How Anti-Choicers Are Using “Personhood” to Ban Birth Control

Amanda Marcotte

Personhood amendments are clearly intended to attack the legality of the birth control pill. The argument for why is a scientific sham, because the pill doesn't kill fertilized eggs. So why aren't pro-choicers saying so?

Editor’s Note: A number of commenters on this piece have argued that the pill may prevent implantation of a fertilized egg.  This is true: It *might.*  According to information from both Planned Parenthood and from Ortho, hormones in the pill work by keeping a woman’s ovaries from releasing eggs — ovulation. Pregnancy cannot happen if there is no egg to join with sperm. The hormones in the pill also prevent pregnancy by thickening a woman’s cervical mucus. The mucus blocks sperm and keeps it from joining with an egg. The hormones also thin the lining of the uterus. In theory, this could prevent pregnancy by keeping a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. The primary action is to prevent ovulation and fertilization in the first place. “Egg-as-person” advocates don’t care either way as their agenda is to redefine pregnancy by rejecting the  medical definition, and ban all methods of contraception.

See all our articles on the “egg-as-person” movement here.

What do you do when all the discourse around a topic is based around a scientific fallacy—or even an outright lie—but pointing that out distracts from the most pertinent issues of a specific debate? Most of the time, the right wing war on science is an easy one to figure out how to fight: conservatives tell lies about science, pro-science people fight back with the facts. There are drawbacks to this strategy, since it’s often a matter of pitching emotions vs. reason, but at least the path of fighting lies with facts is clear. It’s the strategy we use to fight back against claims that global warming isn’t real, that evolution didn’t happen, or that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. But when it comes to debating whether or not the birth control pill should be made illegal, the strategy of simply pointing out that the right is lying falls apart, and unfortunately for very understandable reasons.

Here’s the story: Anti-choicers have been trying, in various states, to pass various versions of a “personhood” amendment that would define a fertilized egg as a person. They hope to sell this to the voters as nothing but a ban on abortion, but pro-choice activists who are familiar with anti-choice belief systems know that anti-choicers also hope that it can be used to ban the birth control pill.  The reason we know they hope this is anti-choice activists are both hostile to contraception use and believe that the birth control pill works by stopping fertilized eggs from implanting. The problem is that the birth control simply doesn’t work by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting.  That’s repeated a lot, but there’s no evidence to back that assertion up.  The birth control pill works by tweaking a woman’s hormones so she doesn’t ovulate. Since an estimated half of fertilized eggs slough off on their own anyway, a woman who uses no contraception will “kill” far more fertilized eggs than a woman on the pill, simply because a woman on the pill doesn’t fertilize the eggs in the first place. If you are truly weeping over the souls of the departed fertilized eggs, then you would want every woman in the world on the pill, though that effort to keep from “murdering” one-celled “persons” would effectively end our species. (Sadly, not enough people push anti-choice arguments to their logical conclusions, even though anti-choicers are extremists who really should die by the sword they live by.)

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This is where the situation gets confusing and choices get hard. Because there are two separate issues at stake here: the fact that anti-choicers are trying to get the birth control pill banned and the fact that anti-choicers lie about the how the birth control pill works. In our soundbite-driven culture, trying to explain both these facts and how they work together is incredibly hard to do. You pretty much have to choose to fight anti-choicers on one front or another. You can explain how the science they’re working under is all wrong, or you can point out they’re trying to ban the birth control pill, but rarely will anyone have the time or column inches to explain both, and in enough detail for the audience to grasp the full picture.

With this in mind, most pro-choicers are simply stating that anti-choicers are trying to ban the birth control pill, which means that they inadvertently concede the scientific argument to the liars. This is coming up frequently now that Mississippi is poised to pass a personhood amendment. Katha Pollitt wrote about the amendment without explaining that the “science” behind it is simply wrong. Ann Rose failed to correct the lie in her piece on the Mississippi ballot initiative. Rachel Maddow went a step further, simply reporting anti-choice misinformation about the pill as if it were scientific fact. This stuff frustrates me as a cheerleader for more scientific accuracy in media, but I do understand why pro-choicers do it.

If you point out that the pill doesn’t actually “kill” fertilized eggs—and that instead it keeps those “deaths” from happening, if said “deaths” bother you, because the pill prevents fertilization from happening—then you have to explain to an audience how a bill that defines personhood at conception could be used to ban the birth control pill. You would have to get into a deep, involved explanation of how scientific misinformation often gets written into law. You’d have to point out that the same people passing personhood laws also refuse to believe in evolution or in global warming, so convincing themselves that the pill works by setting a birth control ninja to attack teeny-weeny babies isn’t really that big a leap. To explain how a lie like this could get by the courts, you’d have to point to various court decisions that rest on scientific misinformation get enshrined into law, such as in Carhart v Gonzalez, where Justice Kennedy invoked anti-choice propaganda about post-abortion depression in his decision, even though the repeated studies on this issue have shown that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that “post-abortive syndrome” exists.

Whew! That’s a lot of explaining! Ninety-five percent of your audience has stopped listening to your fascinating explanation of how an anti-choice myth about female reproductive systems could be written into law and pass a court test all while being a complete lie, and are now watching a YouTube video of a kitten playing in a hamster ball. Politically speaking, avoiding the tedious biological discussions of how the pill works and the tedious legal discussions of the interaction of science and policy and going straight to what the audience needs to know—anti-choicers are trying to ban the pill!—is the smart move. I don’t blame anyone for going there. It’s probably the right decision, and certainly caters to audience needs the most.

But still, it bothers me. Every time we fail to address the blatant lie about how the pill works at the center of this debate, we allow the lie to linger. We allow the public to believe women on the pill are sloughing off fertilized eggs frequently, when they simply aren’t. This works to give anti-choice slander of the pill a little more credibility, and works to increase the stigma attached to taking it.  If they persist in this, and the stigma of the pill continues to grow, eventually they won’t need elaborate lies to ban it. They’ve already been able to convince much of the public that women who get abortions are dirty sluts. This scientific misinformation campaign is about convincing the public that the same is true of women who use the pill.  And every time we let the lie go, we let the stigma of the pill grow.  

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”

News Media

Study: Politicians Dominate Nightly News Reports on Birth Control

Nicole Knight Shine

Study co-author Michelle H. Moniz, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, noted that news segments largely framed contraception as a political issue, rather than a matter of public health.

When it comes to asking experts to weigh in on birth control, the nation’s three major TV networks favor political figures over doctors, according to a forthcoming paper in the journal Contraception.

Analyzing nightly news segments on contraception on ABC, CBS, and NBC between 2010 to 2014, the authors found that few broadcasts included medical professionals (11 percent) or health researchers (4 percent). Politicians, however, dominated coverage, appearing as sources 40 percent of the time, followed by advocates (25 percent), the general public (25 percent), and Catholic Church leaders (16 percent).

Sixty-nine percent of news segments on birth control included no medical information, the authors found.

Study co-author Michelle H. Moniz, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, noted that news segments largely framed contraception as a political issue, rather than a matter of public health.

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“Health professionals are an untapped resource for ensuring that the most up-to-date, scientific information is available to the public watching the news,” Moniz said in an email to Rewire.

An estimated 24 million Americans watch nightly news, making it an “influential information source,” the authors note.

And although nearly half of pregnancies in the United States each year are unplanned, news segments did not emphasize highly effective contraception like IUDs, the researchers found. Instead, emergency contraception, commonly known as the morning-after pill, warranted the most coverage, at 18 percent, followed by the daily oral contraceptive pill, at 16 percent.

The researchers’ analysis of 116 nightly news segments coincided with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act by President Obama and continued through the June 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which carved out the right for private corporations to deny birth control coverage to employees on religious grounds.

“We found that when the network television media covers contraception,” the authors observed, “they do so within a largely political frame and emphasize the controversial aspects of contraception, while paying less attention to health aspects and content experts.”

The paper was authored by five researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the Veterans Affairs Center for Clinical Management and Research in Michigan; and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

The study builds on earlier work exposing media bias and gender disparities in reproductive health coverage.

In June, an analysis of prime-time news programs on cable networks CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC by media watchdog group Media Matters for America found that 40 percent of guests on all three networks made anti-choice statements or identified as anti-choice, compared with 17 percent of guests who made pro-choice statements or identified as reproductive rights advocates. On Fox, guests made a total of 705 inaccurate statements about abortion care over a 14-month period.

The nightly news study follows a report earlier this year on gender disparities by the Women’s Media Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, indicating that male journalists dominate reproductive health coverage, with bylines on 67 percent of all presidential election stories related to abortion and contraception. Female journalists, in comparison, wrote 37 percent of articles about reproductive issues.