Abortion myths play a key role in the ongoing debate about whether women are entitled to control their own bodies. The false notion that abortion causes breast cancer, for example, is a favorite excuse for why women should be forced to give birth (and potentially die doing so).
Reproductive justice advocates face an uphill battle, confronting voters who do not know how dangerous it is to give birth in the United States, and who have no understanding of how abortion works or how many women it has helped. A number of recent abortion studies show that disinformation is a key weapon in the war on women.
A 2016 Media Matters study found that men lying about abortion are a staple of abortion media coverage. Overall, the media is much more likely to repeat abortion myths than facts. During the study period, speakers produces 796 false abortion statements, and just 288 accurate claims.
These lies don’t just evaporate into the ether. They affect policy. A 2017 study found that the myth of abortion regret directly affects abortion legislation. The data show that abortion regret is almost nonexistent, and the most common post-abortion emotion is relief. In 2020, researchers found that even 5 years later, more than 99% of abortion seekers still did not regret their choice.
Researchers have repeatedly shown that abortion does not damage mental health and may actually improve it; that abortion improves men’s long-term socioeconomic prospects; that abortion bans don’t stop abortion; and that access to legal abortion prevents maternal mortality.
But study after study shows that this information is not making it into the national consciousness. Even pro-choicers tend to hold stigmatizing, inaccurate beliefs about abortion.
In 2016 a Vox and Perry/Undem poll asked 1,060 registered voters about their abortion beliefs, understanding of the risks of childbirth, and other issues related to women’s health. Overwhelmingly, respondents got basic information wrong and endorsed abortion myths. This includes people who identified as pro-choice.
Perhaps most alarmingly, just 19% knew that abortion is safer than pregnancy. The United States has the highest maternal death rate in the wealthy world, and is the only developed nation in which maternal mortality is rising. Giving birth in the United States is extremely dangerous, thanks to medical neglect, racism, and a collapsing health system. Almost no one dies having an abortion, but young and healthy women can and do die giving birth in the U.S.
Researchers also asked respondents to compare abortion to another procedure: wisdom tooth removal. Just 8% correctly answered that getting a wisdom tooth removed is more dangerous than abortion.
Even pro-choice respondents perceived abortion as dangerous, pointing to the role that a generalized lack of knowledge of reproductive justice issues plays in abortion views.
Sixty-one percent of respondents believed abortion is rarer than it actually is, which means they’re less likely to see abortion as something that affects people they love. The more educated and higher income a respondent was, the more likely they were to perceive abortion as rare. Men were more likely than women to underestimate the prevalence of abortion.
A 2020 study found that women generally do not know about or understand state-level abortion restrictions, and that this lack of knowledge is serious enough to skew their perceptions at the voting booth. On average, women could correctly answer just 18% of questions about state abortion restrictions. They commonly endorsed myths about abortion, too, such is that it causes depression and anxiety (it doesn’t and may prevent them) and that birth is safer (it’s many times more dangerous).
Anti-choice women and those living in anti-choice states were more likely to endorse abortion myths. This suggests that lack of abortion knowledge may contribute to the development of anti-choice views.
Even medical providers are not immune to false abortion beliefs, according to a 2021 study. The study found that less than half of providers gave their patients information about all pregnancy options, including abortion. Sixty-four percent said lack of knowledge played a role in this decision, and 59% reported facing institutional barriers to providing accurate information.
Anti-choice politics are based on lies. Dispelling abortion myths may be one of the few things progressives can do to convert the convertible, and get the apathetic to understand how dangerous things really are.
If you’re terrified about living in a nation dominated by people who can’t identify a vagina or correctly explain how babies are made, it’s time to get prepared. Last week, I published a comprehensive guide to self-care and protection when abortion becomes a crime. It includes advice from numerous medical providers, as well as legal strategies for people facing criminalized pregnancies. Read it here.