Abortion Truths and Untruths
I grew up and spent most of my adult life in the heart of Evangelicalism. I also was a dyed in the wool Evangelical while I was doing my medical training. I had a front row seat to see what Evangelicals were saying about abortion, abortion providers, women who had abortions, and Planned Parenthood as well as the actual truth of those statements. Now, a lot of what we heard was true, just skewed. But, there was, and still is, a lot of untruth. Let’s look at what the pro-life leaders said that was questionable. And then we’ll look at the way the other side bends the truth. We’ll star with the pro-life side.
1. Life begins at conception. Does it? Something does, but probably not a fully formed human life. Even most pro-lifers would agree that there is an ontological difference between a zygote and a full term fetus. But, where is the line we draw when that fetus becomes a being with rights of its own despite sharing a body with another human being? That’s a good question and ethicists are still working away at this topic. Some will argue that viability is when we should start protecting the fetus. Others argue that a certain level of brain development is a good point. I submit that we just don’t know, but that being excessively conservative hurts women and being excessively liberal hurts babies. Drawing the line somewhere around viability (as did Roe v. Wade) is likely the most rational choice. But, there are going to be unhappy people on both sides of the debate.
It’s also instructive to note that most pro-lifers don’t have a big issue with in-vitro fertilization where extra embryos (which are actually grown beyond the one cell zygote point) are developed and then frozen for later use if the couple wants them. If the couple doesn’t want them, they are then destroyed, although a few die-hard pro-lifers will donate them to infertile couples. About a year ago, a university lab had a failure of their freezers and lost thousands of frozen embryos. It was a full week before anyone in the pro-life community noticed. And there certainly wasn’t the outrage that you would expect if thousands of “babies” had died.
2. Planned Parenthood is evil. Evangelicals do not have a good relationship with PP. There is a lot of venom directed toward them. After 10 years in medicine and doing my own research, I have learned quite a lot. Yes, PP provides abortion services. That is 3% of their income stream. What they do far more of, though, is STI testing and contraceptive services. They also also do breast cancer screenings and well female checkups. In our area, the only PP does abortion care because most people can get other services through the county or through private MDs paid for by Medical Assistance. But, throughout the country, there are places where PP is the only place to get contraceptives and STI screening. These are important and necessary services and vilifying PP only provides a disservice to women.
3. Abortion causes PTSD or Post-Abortion Syndrome. Women who get abortions who believe that abortion is wrong or who don’t really want an abortion tend to have a lot of guilt after the procedure. If they have the procedure done in a place that is not well kept (e.g. Kermit Gosnell’s clinic) or do not have good pain control during the procedure, they are also likely to be emotionally scarred after the procedure. So, for some women, abortion can be a very stressful procedure and lead to some negative emotional consequences, including PTSD.
That being said, a woman who doesn’t believe that abortion is wrong may end up finding that having the procedure was a very positive experience. They had their abortion and then moved on with their life. The emotional outcome is very dependent on their view of abortion going into the procedure.
4. Abortion causes breast cancer. There was one study that linked pregnancy termination to breast cancer and everyone got all excited about it. Now, in some states, doctors have to read a statement about abortion causing breast cancer to women before they do their abortions. The problem is that this was one study whose results have never been replicated. In science, if you can’t replicate the results, then it’s not true. Abortion does not cause breast cancer.
5. Abortion causes sterility. Again, there is a kernel of truth here. With medical abortions (the pregnancy is terminated using medications only), there is minimal risk to future fertility. However, anytime the uterus is instrumented, there is a tiny risk of Asherman’s syndrome, or adhesions in the uterus. This is most likely to occur with a D&C, when sharp, metal instruments are used. A D&C is generally only used when the uterus needs to be evacuated after a failed miscarriage to stop bleeding. Most abortions are done in the first trimester with a vacuum suction abortion which is much more gentle on the uterus. The risk of Asherman’s due to suction abortion has not been quantified from what I can tell in the literature because it is so low. Theoretically, the more abortions the woman has, the more likely she is to develop adhesions, but with vacuum abortions, the risk is quite low.
The pro-choice folks that I hung out with in my medical training and medical world had plenty of myths about pro-life people as well. Let’s explore some of those.
1. The Anti-Choice people just want to control women’s bodies. The main point I’d like to make here is that it’s never a good idea to try to nail down someone else’s motives. Most pro-life people truly care about the cause and are not interested in “controlling women’s bodies”. This may be valid when you are talking about those in upper leadership, but not for the people really working at the grassroot level. The people who work in Crisis Pregnancy Centers and who donate to CPCs or other pro-life causes truly care about pregnancy and women and babies. There are many with their own issues, either unplanned pregnancies in their past, dealing with infertility in the present, or being part of the foster care system or having adopted children. This is not just an abstraction to them.
2. They’re just Pro-Birth, not Pro-Life. This argument is hard to refute on a macro level, but is easier to discuss on a micro level. Political conservatives really do want to “save babies” (i.e. prevent abortion), but they also have prior political commitments to keeping government small, meaning that the federal government should be out of things like housing and feeding poor people, leaving that to local governments and charities. That ends up making conservatives look pretty harsh.
However, there are lots of people who really do care about these women. These folks will donate to the crisis pregnancy centers to help women get through their pregnancies, but then also work food pantries and other charities to help them as they are raising their family. I have seen the data that those charities and local government assistance programs are not enough, and liberals are pointing out that we need a more robust federal solution, but conservatives are arguing that we need more robust local solutions. But, again, when you get down to the granular level, you find that there are men and women out there who are working with pregnant women, staffing charities, adopting and fostering babies, and really doing a lot of the work that needs to be done. Maybe it’s not enough, but they really are doing a yeoman’s job helping families beyond just birth.
3. Crisis Pregnancy Centers are lying to women. OK, some CPCs are terrible, but the overall idea isn’t awful. I wrote a previous blog post based on John Oliver’s monologue that exposed some CPCs that they need to do a better job of being honest. The fact is that there are pregnant women out there who want help to make a good choice about whether or not to keep a baby and then help once they’ve made the choice to carry the baby to term, and CPCs would like to provide an option for them. CPCs can and should be completely open and honest with women and provide excellent services. (To my mind, they’d be doing a great thing if they’d also provide contraception, but many of them are rather anti-contraception, so that’s a story for another day . . ) Many CPCs provide pregnancy related products as well as newborn items and can then provide referrals to other charities and social service organizations in the area. We need to hold CPCs accountable for being truthful and honest, but then support their work if we want to help women keep their babies.
It’s awfully hard to have a reasonable conversation about abortion these days. As you can see, both sides are telling some fibs about the other side. A woman who finds she’s pregnant without planning to become so has a tough choice to make, and none of the above assertions are helping her.
Let’s try for some honesty all the way around. And some humility. And love. It’s certainly what Jesus would do.