Debunking the bad science on abortion and women's health

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony on the Women's Health Protection Act (WHPA), a bill that would prevent unnecessary restrictions on abortions and abortion providers. The opposition used overblown and often incorrect claims to drive home the familiar message that abortion is dangerous, bad for women and shouldn't be considered part of women's healthcare.

In the face of tireless attacks on reproductive rights, it is important to revisit those claims, set the record straight and remind the opposition of the real health threats facing too many U.S. families.

ADVERTISEMENT
Rep. Diane Black (R-Tenn.) was audacious in her claims about the impact of abortion on women's health. She asserted that women who have abortions are more likely to get breast cancer, a truly outrageous suggestion considering it has been thoroughly invalidated by the medical establishment. In 2003, the National Cancer Institute concluded — and subsequent studies have confirmed — there is no association between abortion and breast cancer.

She also claimed that women who have had abortions have a greater risk of preterm birth in subsequent pregnancies. Recent studies, however, have shown that since the 2000s, there has been no link between the two. In the 1980s, abortion was considered a risk factor for subsequent preterm birth, but over time the link progressively weakened, and in the last 15 years has been nonexistent thanks to the evolution of abortion procedures (including the introduction of medical abortion).

Black claimed that infection occurs in 1 to 5 percent of all abortions. In many cases, the infection rate is even lower than 1 percent and in a recent analysis of 95,163 medical abortions — which now account for nearly a quarter of all U.S. non-hospital abortions — only 19 infections required hospital treatment (a rate of 0.02 percent).

Dr. Monique Chireau — an anti-choice obstetrician-gynecologist testifying in opposition to the bill — cited a 2011 study by Priscilla Coleman that found "an 81 percent increase in mental health problems including depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide" for women who had abortions. Chireau didn't mention that the study's findings were not replicable by other researchers, or that when researchers controlled for mental health and violence they found "no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders." Today, the American Psychological Association maintains that the risk of mental health problems for women with unintended pregnancy is no greater if they have an abortion or deliver the pregnancy.

Those testifying against the WHPA seemed to imply that it's all sunshine and roses for women who forgo abortions. But how can we talk about the risks of abortion without also acknowledging that by nearly every measure, pregnancy — the abortion alternative heralded by anti-choice advocates — carries greater health risks, particularly for young women and women with unintended pregnancies? If we are going to talk about women's health, let’s talk about the whole picture.

Why no mention of the fact that infections during pregnancy and childbirth are quite commonplace? One in four pregnant women test positive for Group B strep, one of the leading causes of meningitis and sepsis in newborns (easily managed with antibiotics, as are the infrequent abortion-related infections). Why no acknowledgement that women with unintended pregnancies experience postpartum depression at higher rates than women with intended pregnancies (two times greater at three months postpartum and more than three times greater at one year postpartum)?

Why express outrage over the (unsubstantiated) risk of minors having abortions without voicing concern that adolescents are at increased risk for many prenatal and postnatal health problems? How about some fury over the fact that only half of all adolescents in the U.S. access prenatal care (compared with over 70 percent of mothers over 25)? (Women without prenatal care have a sevenfold greater risk of preterm birth.)

How about a nod to the fact that sadly, pregnancy in the United States — particularly for young women, poor women and women of color — is risky business? Today, the U.S. maternal mortality rate (MMR) — 18.5 per 100,000 births — is higher than at any point in the last 25 years, ranking the U.S. 60th out of 180 countries. How about some indignation that the U.S. is one of only seven other countries to experience an increase in their MMRs over the last decade (other countries include Afghanistan and South Sudan)? Or that for women of color — who have MMRs three to four times higher than white women — pregnancy outcomes are particularly bleak? In Fulton County, Ga., which includes Atlanta, the MMR for black women is 94 per 100,000 births. In Chickasaw County, Miss., it is 595 per 100,000 — a rate higher than in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Where is the outrage and shame over that?

If anti-choice activists are going to oppose abortion on the grounds that it is bad for women's health, then shouldn't they also address the bigger health disparities and injustices facing U.S. women and their families?

The ultimate irony, of course, is that the very people who oppose abortion also oppose the policies and programs that improve women's health and enable them to plan and take care of their families: the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate and Medicaid expansion; Title X family planning programs; evidence-based science classes such as comprehensive sexuality education; and socioeconomic policies on which many low-income families rely to maintain some modicum of economic security.

Black is no exception: She has proposed bills to block the contraceptive mandate, to limit Medicaid expansion and to cut back food stamps. That's certainly not helping the women and families of Tennessee.

On the one hand, conservatives use women's health as a moral high ground when it supports their disdain for abortion rights, and on the other, they promote policies and programs that will only lead to more reproductive health problems, more unplanned pregnancies and ultimately more abortions. Without the WHPA, women across the U.S. — such as those in Texas — will increasingly have no choice but to risk their health and lives resorting to self-induced, black market, unsafe abortions. American women and their families deserve — and are constitutionally guaranteed — better.

Flynn is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Follow her on Twitter @dreaflynn.

More in Healthcare

The one unintended positive of ObamaCare

Read more »