Our in-house Medical Students for Choice Activist, JIll, writes a blog addressing some common myths in the abortion debate.
Anti-choice rhetoric and myths are based on fear. But the scientific evidence just doesn’t back them up.
Abortion is an incredibly stigmatised medical procedure. It is largely avoided as a topic of conversation, even in medical schools. Ask any abortion provider and they’ll tell you: abortion is a safe procedure with a low risk of complication when performed by a trained provider. However, because it isn’t talked about, the void left is instead filled with myths and misconceptions about the medical procedure and its rare complications are fabricated or grossly overstated.
So in this blog post I am going to go through the most common myths about abortion and attempt to debunk them.
1. Abortion causes breast cancer
This is a popular myth for anti-choice campaigners. Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers for women, and the media gives this form of cancer a heavy focus; the idea that a common medical procedure for women would cause breast cancer is frankly a terrifying prospect for a lot of women.
I am going to discuss one very large study from the 1990s, which gives very strong evidence that there is no link between abortion and breast cancer.
In Denmark in the 90s, a study was done of over 1.5 million women, born between the years 1935 and 1978. These women were connected with the National Registry of Induced Abortion and the Danish Cancer Registry. The researchers adjusted the results for known risks factors of breast cancer, and it was found that abortions had no overall effect on a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer.
The size of the study adds power to the results, and the methodology – women were linked with registries, rather than interviewed – also shows a lack of recall bias.
Overall, studies, which have found a link between breast cancer and abortion, are retrospective case-control studies. These are influenced by recall bias; women diagnosed with breast cancer who are interviewed are more likely to accurately recall and report their medical histories and past procedures, as they are more likely to consider factors which may have had an effect on their illness, whereas women who do not have breast cancer may not as heavily scrutinise their health.
The World Health Organisation, the American Cancer Society, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the US National Cancer Institute, are among some of the many widely respected organisations that have concluded that there is no sufficient evidence to claim that abortion causes breast cancer. Studies, which have found this, have been shown to have poor methodology and a lack of scientific rigour.
2. Abortion causes mental illness and trauma
Many anti-choice campaigns say that abortion causes a number of mental health problems for women, including depression, PTSD, anxiety and that abortion leads to suicide.
The Turnaway study by ANSIRH of over 1000 women across 31 states contradicts this myth. Of the 1000+ women, some were denied abortions after requesting them from providers, and some were given abortions.
This infographic, which they produced, shows that from the women, women who were denied an abortion, which they had sought out, actually had worse mental health outcomes than women who had received an abortion. They have published many articles based on results from the Turnaway study, and these articles support the idea that women who obtain abortions are not at a higher risk of depression, anxiety or PTSD.
I understand that these results may not be the same in Northern Ireland, where abortion is not a legal, accessible procedure. However, negative mental health outcomes for women here may stem from women feeling like they have a lack of support from the healthcare system and the secrecy in which many women access their abortions.
Some women travel in secret, and when they come back, they don’t even tell their closest friends and family that they went to England for an abortion. Some women order abortion pills online, a criminal act, for which they are at risk of prosecution. Criminalising their actions only serves to add shame and stigma to these women, when the procedure they are accessing is legal in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Stigmatising women by forcing them to hide their actions is far more likely to be the cause of mental stress down the line, not the procedure itself.
3. Abortion causes child abuse
This is a myth frequently told at false “crisis pregnancy” centres, across the U.K. and Ireland. It’s hard to know where to begin.
This myth plays on the idea that women who have abortions are “bad mothers”. This is misogyny and stigmatisation at its height. Abortion does not cause women to abuse their children and there are no credible studies to support this horrible lie.
4. Abortion is unsafe
Illegal abortions, which are not performed by trained providers, however, are more dangerous, which are why it is so important that people are trained to provide safe and legal abortions, within the local healthcare system, and that women are able to physically and financially access this safe and legal procedure.
Even in Western hospitals and societies abortion comes with fewer complications and long-term health risks than carrying a pregnancy to term and giving birth. The first link above was a study which showed that the mortality of giving birth was about 14 times the risk of death in induced abortion.
The health risks attributed to pregnancy and giving birth are not used as a tool to restrict women and their choices to become mothers, so risks of abortion should not be used to restrict women in their choice to not be pregnant.
5. Abortion is painful for the foetus
This is a myth to appeal to the humanity of people. False concerns for ‘foetal pain’ however, have no base in evidence-based medicine. It is purely an attempt to humanise the foetus, and this myth has worked in restricting time-limits for abortion access in several US states, including Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma.
I will be taking my response to this from “Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence” by the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Their findings were that it is unlikely that the foetus can have any conscious perception of pain before 29-30 weeks. The reasoning for this is that although thalamocortical fibres can begin appearing at 23 weeks, these fibres and pathways must be functional, in order for pain to be consciously perceived.
Electroencephalography, which is an imaging technique on the brain, does not indicate that the foetus is awake and conscious until around 30 weeks gestation.
People often talk about seeing images of a foetus “withdraw”, however withdrawal reflexes are not specific to painful stimuli and these actions do not involve the use of the cortex of the brain, the part which allows for perception, conscious thought and decision making processes. Furthermore, individuals who do not have a functioning cortex or even a cortex at all display these reflexes. We know these individuals cannot perceive pain; therefore reflexes are not an indicator that the foetus can actually feel any pain.
Since abortions in the UK only occur up to 24 weeks, it is very unlikely that foetal pain is ever an issue with late-term abortion procedures.
6. Abortion is a moral, religious and ethical issue
Women access abortions for many reasons. I have looked at the results of a Guttmacher Institute study and women’s reasons for accessing abortion have not drastically changed between 1987 and 2004. Women cite that they cannot afford a child, making abortion a welfare decision for them. Some say that it would drastically change their lives; some of these women want to fully realise their education and career options, making abortion a serious decision about their futures. Some of these women already have children and feel that their family is complete, making abortion a family planning decision for them.
Morals and ethics have no place in these women’s choices. The real-life impact of having a child on these women is not up for a moral discussion.
Also from Guttmacher Institute, we see that women of differing religious backgrounds access abortion. This included Catholic and Protestant women, showing that abortion is not a religious issue, as even women who identify as religious still access abortions.
A point to make is that the actual procedure itself is done by medical professionals and that medical procedures are neither moral nor are they immoral. This procedure is an issue for healthcare practitioners and their patients, and is not a moral issue in that setting.
We need to remove abortion from the moral discussion, and focus on the actual women accessing the procedure. Their decisions are varied and complex and cannot be summed up by a moral argument. For them, abortion may be morally grey.
It is important that abortion is a decision for them to make, and that they can make that decision, with the confidence of their judgement behind them.
This infographic is by University of California San Francisco’s ‘Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health