Commentary Media

Alabama’s New Abortion Bill Mis-reported by Associated Press

Amanda Marcotte

A recent Associated Press story mis-reported that a bill in Alabama would restrict access to emergency contraception. In fact, the bill restricts medical abortion, a safe, easy method of early termination. The whole incident underscores why it's important for the mainstream media to be clear on these distinctions.

Last week, the internet went nuts at the news that Alabama was considering a law requiring women to take the morning after pill, which can be purchased without a prescription from your pharmacist, in the presence of a doctor. It’s a testament to the out-of-control nature of the anti-choice movement at this point that the story was intensely believable. What used to be a difficult point to get across — that the anti-choice movement objects to contraception as well as abortion — has finally been made clear to the country at large because of the battles over private insurance coverage of contraception and through Title X.

Emergency contraception has always been particularly upsetting to anti-choicers, even though it works by suppressing ovulation, because it offers a woman a measure of control over her body even after she’s been, in their eyes, sullied by sex. So it was entirely believable that anti-choice legislators would consider a bill that would make it difficult—impossible even—for most women to take emergency contraception with the speed they need for it to work.

But the story turned out not to be true.  Erin Gloria Ryan, writing for Jezebel on Friday, reported that the actual text of the bill reads:

As tested and approved by the FDA, and as outlined in the drug label, an abortion by mifepristone consists of three 200 mg tablets of mifepristone taken orally followed by two 200 mcg tablets of misopristol taken orally, through 49 days LMP, a gestational measurement using the first day of the woman’s last menstrual period as a marker. The patient is to return for a follow-up visit in order to confirm that a complete termination of pregnancy has occurred… The aforementioned treatment requires three in-person office visits by the patient, and the dosages may only be administered in a clinic, medical office, or hospital and under supervision of a physician.

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The bill specifically and by name addresses only one drug: RU-486, the abortion pill, which you can only get at a doctor’s office. Since women taking it are already meeting with a doctor,  this regulation is less onerous than if it applied to emergency contraception. Of course, it’s still a terrible bill that pretends to be about women’s health but is just an attempt to restrict access to abortion. Additionally, by substituting anti-choice nonsense for a doctor’s judgment, this bill threatens women’s health. There’s a reason women are instructed to take it at home and not in the doctor’s office, after all, and not letting doctors use their professional judgment is downright scary.

So why did the AP fail so badly with this one? Ryan thinks it’s because the sponsor of the bill, Gerald Allen, confused the issue. In the committee meeting on this, he kept referring to RU-486 as the “morning after pill,” presumably because any pill a woman takes after sex is defying sperm’s God-given right to possess women and take away their autonomy. Since anti-choicers try to rationalize their hate for women suppressing ovulation by claiming that emergency contraception somehow kills fertilized eggs (it doesn’t), there’s a tendency on the right to label emergency contraception “abortion,” just making the whole thing more confusing. It seems that this confusion tripped Allen up, causing him to accidentally make the bill sound worse than it is, which is remarkable, considering how bad it already is.

This incident only reveals how successful anti-choicers have been at blurring the distinction between abortion and contraception. Mainstream media sources have largely abandoned scientific accuracy when it comes to the distinctions, which means that huge numbers of people in this country incorrectly believe that “abortion pills” are sold without a prescription at pharmacies in this country, which it’s only emergency contraception that is. From one angle, this isn’t that big a deal, since abortion should be that easy to get. But I’m generally wary of the idea that it’s okay to roll with scientific misinformation. There’s often unintended side effects of that sort of thing, and after all, anti-choicers aren’t blurring the distinction for no reason whatsoever. I imagine they think it helps their case.

One of the most immediate concerns is that women who are confused on this issue will be afraid to use emergency contraception when they don’t need to be. In our culture, the choice to use contraception and the choice to have an abortion are weighted very differently. Most women use contraception routinely, but may feel abortion is a serious decision that should be carefully considered before you even set up the appointment with the doctor to discuss your options. And that’s fine; with terminations, you have a little time to think it through if you need that time But with emergency contraception, time is of essence.

The confusion over this issue is probably one of the reasons emergency contraception hasn’t had as positive an impact as hoped when it comes to lowering the abortion rate. If women think it is some kind of abortion-ish thing, they probably think taking it is a big deal, instead of thinking of it more like taking the pill, since it’s basically the same thing. Additionally, this confusion is likely to cause women to think there are more obstacles to getting emergency contraception than there are (and there are already far too many). By not doing a better job of explaining the distinctions, the mainstream media contributes to this problem. Even though it’s not as politically entertaining, it’s critically important for the media to be clear about the differences between various reproductive health technologies that the right is attacking. 

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

News Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Group: End Clinic ‘Bubble Zones’ for Chicago Abortion Patients

Michelle D. Anderson

Chicago officials in October 2009 passed the "bubble zone" ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support.

An anti-choice group has announced plans to file a lawsuit and launch a public protest over Chicago’s nearly seven-year-old “bubble zone” ordinance for patients seeking care at local abortion clinics.

The Pro-Life Action League, an anti-choice group based in Chicago, announced on its website that its lawyers at the Thomas More Society would file the lawsuit this week.

City officials in October 2009 passed the ordinance with nearly two-thirds of the city aldermen in support. The law makes it illegal to come within eight feet of someone walking toward an abortion clinic once that person is within 50 feet of the entrance, if the person did not give their consent.

Those found violating the ordinance could be fined up to $500.

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Harassment of people seeking abortion care has been well documented. A 2013 survey from the National Abortion Federation found that 92 percent of providers had a patient entering their facility express personal safety concerns.

The ordinance targets people seeking to pass a leaflet or handbill or engaging in “oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public way.” The regulation bans the use of force, threat of force and physical obstruction to intentionally injure, intimidate or interfere any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health-care facility.

The Pro-Life Action League lamented on its website that the law makes it difficult for anti-choice sidewalk counselors “to reach abortion-bound mothers.” The group suggested that lawmakers created the ordinance to create confusion and that police have repeatedly violated counselors’ First Amendment rights.

“Chicago police have been misapplying it from Day One, and it’s caused endless problems for our faithful sidewalk counselors,” the group said.

The League said it would protest and hold a press conference outside of the Planned Parenthood clinic in the city’s Old Town neighborhood.

Julie Lynn, a Planned Parenthood of Illinois spokesperson, told Rewire in an email that the health-care provider is preparing for the protest.

“We plan to have volunteer escorts at the health center to make sure all patients have safe access to the entrance,” Lynn said.

The anti-choice group has suggested that its lawsuit would be successful because of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a similar law in Massachusetts unconstitutional.

Pam Sutherland, vice president of public policy and education for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune back then that the health-care provider expected the city’s bubble zone to be challenged following the 2014 decision.

But in an effort to avoid legal challenges, Chicago city officials had based its bubble zone law on a Colorado law that created an eight-foot no-approach zone within 100 feet of all health-care facilities, according to the Tribune. Sidewalk counselor Leila Hill and others challenged that Colorado law, but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in 2000.

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