Analysis Abortion

National Right to Life Director Admits Pregnancy Is Riskier Than Abortion

Sofia Resnick

At last weekend's National Right to Life Committee's convention, Mary Spaulding Balch criticized the legislative strategy used by other anti-choice groups to pass 20-week abortion bans by claiming the procedure is dangerous to women. The proper approach, she said, is to base the argument around the unborn.

The state legislative director of one of the nation’s leading anti-choice organizations recently contradicted a key refrain of the anti-choice movement when she admitted that abortion is safer than many common medical procedures, including delivery.

During a political and legislative strategy session at the National Right to Life Committee’s annual convention held last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky, Mary Spaulding Balch said current data shows that abortions—including riskier second-trimester abortions—carry fewer risks of death than vaginal births, cesarean sections, and plastic surgery procedures, such as facelifts and liposuction.

In making this point, Balch criticized the legislative strategy used by other anti-choice groups to pass bans on abortion after 20 weeks by claiming the procedure is dangerous to women. The proper approach, she said, is to base the argument around the unborn.

“Who would ever say that we should ban liposuction because of the risk to the women?” Balch said, after reading off statistics claiming that on average there are .19 deaths for 1,000 liposuction procedures, compared to .09 deaths for every 1,000 second-trimester abortion procedures. “Who’s going to win that debate?”

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It’s no secret that the National Right to Life Committee has always framed anti-choice arguments around saving the unborn, while other advocacy groups in the movement have opted to focus on the woman’s physical and mental health as part of their legal and political strategy. But it is rare for anti-choice leaders to publicly admit that abortion is actually safer than pregnancy or other common medical procedures.

“If we were to argue, for instance, that abortion should be banned at, say, 20 weeks because late abortions are dangerous to the mother’s health, let’s look at the fact of abortion,” Balch said to an auditorium of roughly 100 people, many of them members or leaders of state National Right to Life affiliates. “You know that a mother’s risk of death by abortion after a particular time—in this instance let’s say 20 weeks pregnant—the risk to the mother’s life rises to .09 [for] every 1,000 abortions. But let’s compare the other risks of a woman’s health. We know, for instance, that if she was to get liposuction that there’s .19 deaths for every 1,000 procedures. If you look for facelifts, it’s .2 per 1,000 procedures. For C-sections, 1.98 per 1,000, versus vaginal deliveries, which are .63 per 1,000.”

National Right to Life Communications Director Derrick Jones told Rewire that these statistics were taken from a 2010 study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research.

Balch did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Currently at least ten states ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation, many of them based on a model law crafted by the National Right to Life. A few other state bans were signed into law but later struck down in court for violating federal policy that abortion must be legal until a fetus is viable outside the woman’s uterus. The National Right to Life Committee’s “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” claims that at 20 weeks, fetuses can feel pain—a disproven theory based on a few selected studies, which contradicts the medical consensus that a fetus’ nervous system is not developed enough to feel pain until the third trimester.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to review a case involving a challenge to Arizona’s 20-week abortion ban after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law.

That law, based on model legislation crafted by the anti-choice policy group Americans United for Life, was primarily based on the argument that later abortions carry medical risks to women.

Americans United for Life leaders have noted in the past that the Supreme Court is unlikely to strike down its own “viability standard,” a standard set down in Roe v. Wade, which says that abortion is legal until the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb. Americans United for Life, therefore, believes that putting the focus on the mother’s health is a more effective legal and political strategy.

But in the Ninth Circuit decision, the court wrote that passing informed consent is the proper response to dealing with the risks of a medical procedure, not banning the procedure.

Balch referenced the Ninth Circuit decision as evidence that framing the debate around women’s health is ineffective.

For the strategists at the National Right to Life Committee, potential implications of 20-week abortion bans focused on the life of the unborn are not simply legislative (actually banning abortions at 20 weeks) or legal (dismantling the foundation of Roe v. Wade by striking down the viability standard) but political as well.

Looking ahead to this year’s mid-term elections, the organization is calling on anti-choice candidates to highlight their political opponents’ objections to 20-week bans as extreme and inhumane, and to steer clear of arguments about women’s health and safety.

“If we’re going to use legislation to frame the debate, do we frame it around an area and approach that is around the woman and her health, or do we frame the debate around the unborn child who can feel pain?” Balch said.

If Balch’s statements are any indication of emerging campaign rhetoric, it seems likely that her group will emphasize junk science—such as that of so-called fetal pain—and the emotive use of the word “baby” to refer to a fetus.

“I think as long as you keep the baby in the debate, we are fighting on our high ground,” Balch told the audience.

News Law and Policy

Three Crisis Pregnancy Centers Served for Breaking California Law

Nicole Knight Shine

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act.

The Los Angeles City Attorney is warning three area fake clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), that they’re breaking a new state reproductive disclosure law and could face fines of $500 if they don’t comply.

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, advocates and the state Attorney General’s office indicate.

The office of City Attorney Mike Feuer served the notices on July 15 and July 18 to two unlicensed and one licensed clinic, a representative from the office told Rewire. The Los Angeles area facilities are Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

The law requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care, and for unlicensed centers to disclose that they are not medical facilities.

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“Our investigation revealed,” one of the letters from the city attorney warns, “that your facility failed to post the required onsite notice anywhere at your facility and that your facility failed to distribute the required notice either through a printed document or digitally.”

The centers have 30 days from the date of the letter to comply or face a $500 fine for an initial offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

“I think this is the first instance of a city attorney or any other authority enforcing the FACT Act, and we really admire City Attorney Mike Feuer for taking the lead,” Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, told Rewire on Wednesday.

Feuer in May unveiled a campaign to crack down on violators, announcing that his office was “not going to wait” amid reports that some jurisdictions had chosen not to enforce the law while five separate court challenges brought by multiple fake clinics are pending.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In April, Rebecca Plevin of the local NPR affiliate KPCC found that six of eight area fake clinics were defying the FACT Act.

Although firm numbers are hard to come by, around 25 fake clinics, or CPCs, operate in Los Angeles County, according to estimates from a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California. There are upwards of 1,200 CPCs across the country, according to their own accounting.

Last week, Rewire paid visits to the three violators: Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

Christie Kwan, a nurse manager at Pregnancy Counseling Center, declined to discuss the clinic’s noncompliance, but described their opposition to the state law as a “First Amendment concern.”

All three centers referred questions to their legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based nonprofit and frequent defender of discriminatory “religious liberty” laws.

Matt Bowman, senior counsel with ADF, said in an email to Rewire that forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs” and threatens their free speech rights.

“The First Amendment protects all Americans, including pro-life people, from being targeted by a government conspiring with pro-abortion activists,” Bowman said.

Rewire found that some clinics are following the law. Claris Health, which was contacted as part of Feuer’s enforcement campaign in May, includes the public notice with patient intake forms, where it’s translated into more than a dozen languages, CEO Talitha Phillips said in an email to Rewire.

Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the public notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Even so, reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, a person who Googled “abortion clinic” might be directed to a fake clinic, or CPC.

Oakland last week became the second U.S. city to ban false advertising by facilities that city leaders described as “fronts for anti-abortion activists.” San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in 2011.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.