Commentary Abortion

The Anti-Choice Movement Is a Denialist Movement

Amanda Marcotte

A new evidence-based report from the United Nations Population Fund recommends that “unnecessary restrictions on abortion should be removed and governments should provide access to safe abortion services.” The debate over abortion is now less about values and now a struggle between denialism and the facts.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released a report this month recommending that “unnecessary restrictions on abortion should be removed and governments should provide access to safe abortion services.” It’s not really a big surprise—UNFPA has been making solidly pro-choice recommendations for a long time now—but perusing the document, I realized the thing that really jumps out is how much this recommendation is based on facts and research; the report looks at abortion through a public health lens instead of through an ideological one. While the UNFPA wants to reduce the overall abortion rate—and the group recommends the fact-based method of improving contraception services to get there—it accepts as fact that not every unwanted pregnancy can be prevented. Uruguay is held up as a country that has made great strides in reducing the maternal mortality rate by decriminalizing abortion, bringing its maternal mortality rate from unsafe abortion down to zero.

What becomes clear is that the abortion debate has shifted away from being a clash of values and is now better understood in many ways as a struggle between the evidence-based worldview and the fantasy-based worldview. Just as evolution happened and climate change is a man-made phenomenon, the fact that safe, legal abortion is necessary for women’s health and safety is unassailable, if you have respect for reality. Which means that anti-choicers shouldn’t just be regarded as sex-phobic misogynists, though there will always be that, but also as denialists, just as those who deny things like climate change, evolutionary theory, and the safety of vaccinations.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a clash of values between pro- and anti-choice sides, of course. But that’s also true when it comes to other issues where denialists hold sway. The climate change battle is a fight between those who value the environment and those who value profits and convenience over long-term sustainability. The battle over evolutionary theory is between those who value scientific research and those who value arbitrary religious authority. The clash over vaccines is between those who value science-based medicine and those who appear to value their own egotistical need to feel they’re invincible against germs, or that’s the best read I have on it.

But the difference between a denialist and someone who just has a reactionary or unpleasant opinion is that a denialist realizes that their actual values are so repulsive they cannot be stated out loud, and so instead resorts to distorting or even outright lying about the facts instead. The climate change denialist will not admit to being indifferent to environmental destruction, since that’s borderline evil, but instead will claim that greenhouse gases are not a problem. Creationists do the same thing, pretending that there’s a scientific dispute to avoid admitting out loud their true motivations.

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So it goes with abortion denialists. As the evidence accumulates to show that safe, legal abortion is necessary to prevent maternal mortality and injury, anti-choicers are ramping up the false claims that safe, legal abortion is the real cause of maternal mortality and injury. The favorite strategy of anti-choicers lately, most evident in Texas, is to pass medically unnecessary abortion restrictions that shut down clinics while pretending that it’s for women’s safety. It’s as if climate change denialists decided to start arguing that we need more greenhouse gases and started to pass laws requiring cars to have low gas mileage. (Not to give them any ideas.) It’s actually quite a bit like creationists fronting like they are science-based critics of evolutionary theory, when, of course, close examination shows they are just making a bunch of stuff up. Lying has become such a central component of the anti-choice strategy that the Susan B. Anthony List is suing to be able to use blatant lies in violation of campaign laws.

The thoroughly denialist bent of the modern anti-choice movement was on full display in the reaction to this UNFPA report. went after this in its typical way, misrepresenting the arguments to give the false impression that maternal mortality from illegal abortion is not a big deal. It claims, based on the fact that the absolute number of abortion deaths is going down worldwide (which is because of increased contraception use, something LifeNews generally opposes), that “there is every reason to think that maternal mortality can be reduced by the full 75% called for by ICPD, and all without creating a right to abortion.”

Except that is not what the report says at all. On the contrary, the report is clear that while maternal mortality is going down overall, abortion death actually seems, percentage-wise, to be going up:

As of 2008, an estimated 47,000 maternal deaths were attributed to unsafe abortion, a decline from 69,000 deaths in 1990. But given that the number of deaths due to unsafe abortion has declined more slowly than the overall number of maternal deaths, unsafe abortions appear to account for a growing proportion of maternal deaths globally.

If LifeNews wanted to be intellectually honest, it could simply argue that a high death rate from illegal abortion is a price the site and its followers are willing to pay to send the message that abortion is wrong by banning it. (It would also admit that abortion bans are about nothing else but “sending a message,” as abortion bans are correlated with higher abortion rates.) Instead of just owning these beliefs and the consequences of them, and admitting that dead women is a price these anti-choicers are willing to pay in order to maintain sexual control and shame, LifeNews instead misleads and distorts. As with other denialists, this choice to favor dishonesty appears to be due to the fact that stating one’s moral priorities bluntly—admitting that one is more worried about policing sexuality than saving lives—makes a person seem pretty awful. So, in order to seem less awful, denialists lie. Which, ironically, makes them more awful, adding dishonesty to the list of moral transgressions necessary to uphold their ideological worldview.

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