The 46th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., has adopted “Unique from Day One” as its theme, an apparent declaration of the extreme anti-choice position that life begins at conception. The event not only asserts this view as a moral position but also claims that “being pro-life is not in opposition to science.”
This co-opting of science is in line with a strategy and infrastructure that the anti-choice movement has been building for some time.
In 2011, the Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List), which supports policies and lawmakers who seek to end legal abortion, created what it called a “research” organization called the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI). CLI has since been a prominent voice in promulgating myths about abortion under the pretense that it conducts research and values “science.”
Take the American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) as another example. In 2002, a few conservative members of the established American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) were angry when the AAP took the public health position that pediatricians should support the adoption of children by people in same-sex relationships; they broke away to form their own organization. This group, ACPeds, has since been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has advocated for positions with no scientific basis, including “conversion therapy.” It has equated parental support of transgender children to “child abuse,” and it joined a court brief against the dilation and evacuation abortion—the safest and most common second-trimester abortion. And yet March for Life includes an ACPeds link in its “pro-life is pro-science” list of online resources.
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These are just two institutions created recently to provide the anti-choice movement and groups like March for Life with an arsenal to validate its myths.
Knowing that the myths promoted at March for Life may drive another year of policymaking, correcting this narrative before Friday’s event is important. In the list below, the evidence about abortion appears first. Because leading with the real science—the science backed by evidence, and supported by leading experts all over the country—is the best way to drown out the misinformation.
Abortion Is Extremely Safe
Each year the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases statistics about abortion in almost all 50 states, and the data clearly shows that complications from abortion are minimal. Of the 652,639 abortions reported to the CDC for 2014, the last year for which data is currently available, only six women were reported to have died from medical complications related to abortion. This government data paints the same picture as reputable studies and reports from the country’s leading medical and health organizations.
A 2014 analysis from University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) center confirmed that abortion is extremely safe. Research ANSIRH conducted using 2009-2010 data in California found that 0.23 percent of abortions done through the state’s Medicaid program resulted in a major complication. That is less than a quarter of one percent. A 2014 ACOG committee opinion also promoted the safety of abortion.
The myth that abortion is unsafe has been perpetuated by the anti-choice movement and by sympathetic media. In addition to supporting the creation of groups like CLI and ACPeds, the movement has built a network of people who use their academic accreditation to publish flawed studies and testify as “experts.” Many of these people are profiled in Rewire.News’ False Witnesses database. For example, Dr. Byron C. Calhoun, a proponent of the myth that complications from abortion are common, has had his research disputed and discredited, but he has still had the ear of lawmakers on abortion policy issues and has testified in the U.S. Congress in favor of abortion bans.
D and E Abortions Are Safe—and the Language Used to Describe Them Was Invented by Anti-Choice Activists
Dilation and evacuation (D and E) abortions are the most common second-trimester abortions, and are supported in their safety by leading medical groups such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
Despite this, the anti-choice movement has deployed political and linguistic attacks to try and ban all second-trimester abortions. The movement has invented non-medical terms like “partial birth abortions” and “dismemberment abortions,” and has been successful in getting these terms used in legislation and the media. Through the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Gonzales v. Carhart, the anti-choice movement successfully advocated for some second-trimester abortions procedures to be banned. States have since used this legal decision to start banning D and E abortions. Now the fight around the method is on the horizon for the Supreme Court as state bans on the procedure are being challenged.
Abortion Does Not Cause Mental or Physical Health Problems
This reality continues to be confirmed by evidence, including research from ANSIRH. Its groundbreaking ‘Turnaway Study” looked at the impact that having an abortion and being denied a wanted abortion had on the lives of women, including their mental and physical health. After five years, ANSIRH researchers confirmed that “a wanted abortion was not associated with mental health harms.” ANSIRH’s findings are in line with the views of leading medical organizations, including the American Psychological Association and ACOG.
ANSIRH found that “policies based on the notion that abortion harms women’s mental health are not supported by rigorous evidence.” Yet eight states still require that a person receiving an abortion must first be counseled on the myth that it can cause long-term mental health problems.
Abortion’s lack of long-term health effects is not just limited to mental health. People can and do remain physically healthy after having abortions. This belies one prominent anti-choice falsehood: that abortion is linked to breast cancer. ACOG, the National Cancer Institute, and the American Cancer Society are among the leading medical groups that have released statements confirming this is a myth. But in five states, people who seek an abortion are still required to receive counseling to the contrary. The basis of this myth originated in methodologically flawed studies from prominent anti-choice advocates who now are asked to testify on the issue in state legislatures and courts.
A Fetus Cannot Feel Pain 20 Weeks After Fertilization
Leading medical groups, such as ACOG and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, agree that a fetus cannot begin to feel pain until after viability, which occurs around 24 weeks’ gestation. Nevertheless, 21 states have enacted 20-week abortion bans. The U.S. Congress has even considered a federal ban. But the bill—which was backed by President Donald Trump—was unconstitutional (Roe v. Wade made clear that states cannot completely ban abortion before viability) and based on junk science. ACOG pointed this out in a press release opposing the policy: “This bill ignores scientific evidence regarding fetal inability to experience pain at that gestational age. In addition, the phrase ‘probable post-fertilization age’ is not medically or clinically meaningful .… It is an unconstitutional attempt to intimidate health care providers and prevent them from providing the safe care their patients want and need.”
So-Called Heartbeat Bans Are Arbitrary and Unconstitutional
At around six weeks, when a pregnancy is still an embryo, doctors can detect cardiac activity with an ultrasound. This is far before the point of fetal viability and before a heart has fully formed. As Dr. Rebecca Cohen, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado, told HuffPost in early 2017, “It’s not a fully formed heart like you would understand from looking at an adult or even a young child …. It’s a very early structure. We can see it on the ultrasound, but it’s not a heart, a fully developed organ, by any means.’”
So-called heartbeat bans, which would ban abortion at six weeks—before most people know they are pregnant—are sweeping the nation, and are being supported by groups like March for Life. These bills have picked up momentum since first proposed in 2011 in Ohio. And as Rewire.News’ Imani Gandy and Brie Shea predicted, many states (so far four and counting) will propose similar bills in 2019. These bills are unconstitutional, but the motivation behind them is clear, as Gandy and Shea explained: “To provide the Supreme Court as many opportunities as possible to reverse course on abortion rights.”
In addition to the obvious legal issues, medical groups, including ACOG, oppose these policies. In opposition to a federal version of a ban, ACOG wrote: “This bill bans abortion long before the point of viability. Whether a fetus is viable is a medical determination and occurs much later in pregnancy. This bill violates the Constitution, will serve as [an] outright ban on abortion for most women, and will prohibit health care providers from providing ethical, necessary care to their patients.”
Fetal Tissue Research Has Led to Important Medical Advances
Research using fetal tissue has been conducted since at least the 1930s and has been funded by the federal government through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since the 1950s. This research has been regulated for decades, presently falling under the purview of the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993, which was passed with bipartisan support. Because of the significant potential contributions of this research, NIH provided $98 million for fetal tissue research in 2017 alone. This funding went to support a variety of research projects on issues such as HIV, Zika virus, and various cancers. Already, research using fetal tissue has led to monumental medical advancements, including developing vaccines for polio, rubella, measles, chicken pox, hepatitis A, tetanus, and rabies. These advancements have saved lives and pushed health care forward.
But since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, fetal tissue research has been targeted by the anti-choice movement. The most recent attacks under the Trump administration gained steam in September 2018 when a company that provides fetal tissue for research had its contract canceled by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). March for Life was among many anti-abortion groups that celebrated this contract termination. Since then, Congressional hearings on fetal tissue research tenability and alternatives have been underway. The hearings included testimony from people tied to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, and the effort to block fetal tissue research is likely to continue given HHS is heavily stacked with anti-choice advocates who are receptive to the movement’s lobbying activities.