Wyoming health department records show fewer than five abortions were performed in the state over the past five years. But the true tally of abortions is higher.
Rewire.News’ findings come as anti-choice lawmakers in states across the United States have injected politics into the abortion reporting process. Advocates suggest these reporting requirements represent an underhanded attempt to paint abortion care as a dangerous procedure, though evidence says otherwise.
“I do not report to the state because it is none of their business,” Wyoming abortion provider Dr. Brent Blue told Rewire.News.
Wyoming law requires a report to the state health department within 20 days of every abortion.
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Blue said he sends his reports to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading abortion rights think tank. Dr. Giovannina Anthony, who provides medication abortion and other OB-GYN services in Wyoming, said she does as well.
The two physicians are the chief abortion providers in a state where 96 percent of women live in a county without one, and hospitals very rarely provide the service. Most pregnant people in Wyoming seek terminations out of state, in Colorado, Montana, or Utah, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Yet, abortions also occur in Wyoming, although these procedures don’t show up in Wyoming health department reports. And the reason reveals a new beachhead in the abortion rights war.
Laws in nearly every state require physicians to send in a report every time they perform an abortion.
Anthony described the reporting as “for the most part a mandate generated by pro-life factions, to assist their cause in various ways.” She suggested the reports violate federal patient privacy law and unnecessarily single-out abortion, a very safe procedure, over others.
“They do not require a ‘report’ for all colonoscopies, for example, or for any other minor medical procedure,” she said of abortion reporting mandates.
Some state reports intrude on patient privacy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, posing loaded questions unrelated to public health. Oklahoma’s report, for example, asks whether the pregnancy was a result of “forcible rape.” A pending Arizona bill would expand its reports to ask if an aborted fetus was “delivered alive.” Some laws hew to draft legislation from the influential anti-choice group Americans United for Life, which maintains that “American abortion data is inaccurate and often misleading.”
Abortion reporting wasn’t always a political minefield.
In 1969, the CDC began collecting voluntary records on the demographics and the number of women having legal abortions in the United States. The CDC even created a template to aid consistent data collection, with questions on the patient’s age, race, ethnicity, marital status, education level, past pregnancies and their outcomes, the type of procedure, and location. The CDC’s template emphasized the data was to be used for statistical and research purposes only.
Today, 47 states and the District of Columbia voluntarily send aggregate abortion data to the CDC.
While the bedrock of this reporting by the CDC was public health, the motives have shifted in Republican-led statehouses. “We’re seeing abortion reporting become much more politicized,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager with the Guttmacher Institute.
The legislative record bears this out. Mostly Republican-controlled states have advanced 80 new abortion reporting requirements since January 2017, with mixed success. These laws are mandates, not voluntary like the CDC’s data collection. Violators of reporting laws can be punished with “everything from a $10 fine to a loss of a license,” Nash noted.
Nash sees ties between the rising emphasis on abortion record-keeping and a landmark 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of abortion rights, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Justices struck down provisions in a sweeping Texas abortion law after the state failed to show its restrictions improved women’s health and safety.
The decision sent abortion rights foes scrambling to bolster future abortion restrictions with evidence. “So to build an evidence base, abortion opponents may be looking to adding more requirements to abortion reporting in an effort to show that abortion is dangerous and providers dodgy,” Nash explained. “The problem with this is that abortion is safe and has a very low complication rate.”
In Wyoming, a decades-old state law requires doctors to complete a one-page form every time they perform an abortion. The form asks, among other questions, about abortion complications. While the reporting is mandatory, the state levies no specific penalty for noncompliance. Lawmakers last year advanced a bill to levy a $1,000 fine on providers who did not comply with the reporting, but the bill died in committee.
The Wyoming health department in 2012 reminded providers of the abortion reporting requirement, said Mariah Storey, vital services unit supervisor with the Wyoming Department of Health. Since then, the department has “received less than five reports over the last five years,” Storey said in an email to Rewire.News. “Wyoming residents are likely leaving the state for those services.”
Wyoming residents do indeed seek abortion care outside the state. CDC records in 2014, the most recent year available, show 642 Wyoming residents terminated their pregnancies in Colorado, Montana, and Utah; the CDC had no data on the number of abortions performed in Wyoming that year.
It’s no secret that Blue and Anthony provide abortion services in Wyoming, as reproductive rights advocates acknowledge. Blue talked publicly last year about being an abortion care provider to Vice News. Moreover, Guttmacher surveys in 2011, 2013, and 2014 showed a total of 380 abortions in Wyoming—a sum far outpacing the state’s figures of fewer than five.
When asked about the discrepancy in the Wyoming’s health department numbers, Anthony offered an answer that illustrates the tension around abortion reporting. She directed Rewire.News to the Guttmacher Institute, not the state. “If you are looking for numbers, that is where you should focus your efforts,” she said. “Their stats appropriately assess the need for reproductive services. They do not ask intrusive, irrelevant questions.”