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. 

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