It’s long been a media and political truism that the abortion debate is primarily a struggle over morals and values, pitting concern for embryonic life against women’s right to bodily autonomy. That really did used to be the case, I’d say. Looking over the political landscape now, though, it’s becoming clear that the anti-choice movement has basically abandoned that moralistic strategy when it comes to their actual political activism.
Sure, anti-choicers still lean on the “pro-life” angle in internal messaging to supporters and while harassing women outside of clinics. But when it comes to making change happen on a legislative or judicial level, the anti-choice movement is borrowing a plan of action from climate change denialists and creationists: Create the illusion of a scientific controversy where none exists, and use that as a pretext to push a right-wing agenda. Climate change denialists have had great success claiming there’s a scientific dispute over whether global warming is real, when in fact there’s overwhelming consensus that it is happening. Creationists have also successfully confused the public about research regarding evolutionary biology, which is so ridiculous at this point it’s like saying that there’s debate over whether gravity is real.
Now, anti-choicers seem to be favoring this strategy over old-school declarations that embryos have a right to life, which supersedes a woman’s right to her own body. The idea is to create the illusion—in other words, flagrantly lie—that there is a serious medical debate over the dangers of abortion to a woman’s physical and mental well-being, and use that to argue that a bunch of laws making it harder to obtain abortions are necessary.
As Sofia Resnick recently documented for Rewire, lying about the dangers of abortion for women is the go-to method for passing abortion restrictions at the state level these days. And, when the restrictions are inevitably challenged in court, the sleazy operators declaring themselves “experts” even as they spew unscientific, falsified information are being called up to give testimony to justify these restrictions.
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“Rewire recently profiled several of the medical professionals and researchers who routinely peddle these largely unsupported theories, first before state legislators and then later before state and federal judges, on the taxpayers’ dime,” Resnick wrote, referencing Rewire’s False Witnesses investigation.
Let’s be clear: When performed in legal clinics in the United States, abortion is extremely safe. As Andrea Grimes recently reported, yet another, extremely large study has showed this:
The University of California at San Francisco study, published this week in Obstetrics & Gynecology, followed 54,911 abortions obtained by 50,273 patients enrolled in Medi-Cal in 2009 and 2010, and found that of those nearly 55,000 medication abortion and first- and second-trimester surgical abortion procedures, 126 required treatment for “major complications,” defined as “requiring hospital admission, surgery or blood transfusion.”
That’s low to begin with. But those numbers really stand out when compared to the alternative—childbirth—which has a serious-complication rate in the United States of 129 out of 10,000; that’s five times higher than that of abortion. Studies have also shown childbirth to be 14 times as deadly as abortion, though the risk of dying of either is extremely low in the United States.
Despite the clear evidence that abortion is not dangerous, anti-choicers have come to realize what climate change denialists and creationists have figured out: There is evidently no political or legal way to separate truth from lies, as long as the liars stand firm and refuse to change their story. If a legislator or a judge prefers the lie to the truth, there’s almost nothing scientists and doctors can do to fix that. Take the situation in Texas, where Dr. James Anderson and Dr. John Thorp falsely testified that abortion was too dangerous to perform without hospital admitting privileges—and were paid by the state to be expert witnesses at trial. The main issue here is there is no mechanism in place to make lawmakers listen to facts instead of honeyed lies they wish were true.
This problem isn’t restricted to the lower courts and state legislatures, either. In 2007, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion justified the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a ban on the intact dilation and extraction later abortion procedure by leaning heavily on anti-choice misinformation, which claimed that women are in great danger of being traumatized and unable to heal after getting abortions. That’s not true, but Kennedy apparently wished it were—so he made his decision on wishes and not facts. That’s almost surely the main cause for the current explosion of laws being passed with a bunch of lies about abortion risks as their justification. Anti-choicers have good reason now to believe the highest court in the land will play along with their game of telling convenient lies to get their way.
But it could also be that trying to make the “moral” argument is clearly never going to work. Americans may ascribe value to embryonic life, but most of them just don’t think it should be considered more valuable than a woman’s right to control her body. No matter how much anti-abortion propaganda conservatives have put out there, the needle hasn’t really moved on this question: Most Americans believe abortion should be legal, and first-trimester abortions in particular aren’t very controversial. People don’t, as a general rule, like voting away their rights. Some may think abortion is wrong, but they’d like to keep their options open.
In light of this, the shift away from trying to make a moral argument makes perfect sense. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it’s actually easier to confuse people on the issue of facts than it is on the issue of values. After all, our values reside inside us, making it ineffective for people to claim they truly know what they are. But facts live outside of us. Most of us only “know” what the facts are by listening to experts, so all anti-choicers need to do is put forward some people claiming to be just that. And voila! The issue is successfully confused.
Right now, it’s hard to say if the false claim that abortion is dangerous is as convincing to the public as false claims about creationism or global warming have been. It does seem like the media has been better overall than they’ve been on global warming about not letting a bunch of liars sow doubt about abortion safety on TV and in the newspapers, though of course some always sneak through. But sadly, in our courts and legislatures, the liars have far too much power.