Part of the Series
Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016
GOP nominees Donald Trump and Mike Pence have made it clear that, if elected, they intend to continue the trend of prioritizing abortion restrictions begun in the Tea Party wave of 2010 and cemented in the party platform, which would see abortion outlawed in 100 percent of circumstances.
The Republican party’s entire slate of candidates for president featured a Who’s Who of abortion opponents attempting to outdo one another on their “pro-life” credentials, all but guaranteeing that the 344 provisions passed from 2011 to 2016 would only be the beginning.
While the Donald Trump of old said he was “totally pro-choice” and “would like to see the abortion issue removed from politics” because he believed it was a “personal decision that should be left to women and their doctors,” the revamped GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump is pushing an extremist anti-abortion agenda. In a letter addressed “Dear Pro-Life Leader” released last month by the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List’s Marjorie Dannenfelser, Trump reassured the far right that he supports the deceptively named Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which seeks to ban abortion nationally after 20 weeks and make the prohibition of federal funds for abortion through the Hyde Amendment permanent.
Trump has also promised to completely defund Planned Parenthood “as long as they continue to perform abortions.” While Planned Parenthood clinics do not provide the majority of abortion care (between 60 and 80 percent of terminations are performed at independent clinics), the effort to single out the most well-known reproductive health care provider in the country affects the perception of clinics as a whole.
“Together we can form this vital coalition so that Mike Pence and I can be advocates for the unborn and their mothers every day we are in the White House,” Trump’s letter concluded after promising to nominate “pro-life” judges to the Supreme Court.
For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”
Trump infamously told Chris Matthews in March that “there has to be some form of punishment” for the person receiving the abortion, though what that punishment should be “will have to be determined.” While Trump later tried to backpedal from that assertion — taking five different positions on abortion in three days — his party’s platform and policy promises make it clear a Trump presidency would be devastating to reproductive health care access.
Meanwhile, Trump’s vice presidential nominee, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, whose anti-choice credentials are unparalleled, has said he wants to see abortion made illegal again in all circumstances.
“Let me be clear: People who know me well know I’m pro-life, and I don’t apologize for it,” Pence said to the largely evangelical crowd at the Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., last month. “I want to live to see the day that we put the sanctity of life back at the center of American law and we send Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history where it belongs.”
The Myth of Abortion Regret
The anti-abortion tide that Trump and Pence are riding on is fueled in part by a newly debunked lie popularized by anti-abortion activists: the myth of “abortion regret.”
As the abortion opposition language shifted over the decades to incorporate the ruse of protecting women, the fallacy that most patients seeking abortion need to be saved from themselves lest they make a regrettable decision became assumed in mainstream public discourse about reproductive rights. It became so pervasive that it reached the Supreme Court and was cited by Justice Anthony Kennedy in Gonzales v. Carhart.
“It seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” wrote Justice Kennedy in the majority decision.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously retorted in the dissent that “neither the weight of the scientific evidence to date nor the observable reality of 33 years of legal abortion in the United States comports with the idea that having an abortion is any more dangerous to a woman’s long-term mental health than delivering and parenting a child that she did not intend to have.”
A new study of 500 women from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) backs up Ginsberg’s contention that we should trust women to know what’s best for them and their families.
In “Measuring Decisional Certainty Among Women Seeking Abortion,” published this week in the international reproductive health journal Contraception, ANSIRH researchers found that patients seeking abortion aren’t just certain about their decision, they’re more certain than patients considering mastectomy after a breast cancer diagnosis, prenatal testing after infertility, antidepressant use during pregnancy, reconstructive knee surgery and prostate treatment options.
“Our findings challenge these laws’ implicit characterization of women making abortion decisions … as particularly conflicted,” the researchers concluded. “The high levels of decisional certainty found in this study challenge the narrative that abortion decision making is exceptional compared to other health care decisions and requires additional protection such as laws mandating waiting periods, counseling and ultrasound viewing.”
The ANSIRH study incorporated both the academic standard questions about certainty and also questions from the abortion providers’ standard pre-abortion counseling checklist, so researchers were able to determine that the current practices led to the high level of certainty.
“Our finding directly challenges the idea that decision-making on abortion is somehow exceptional and requires additional protection,” lead researcher Lauren J. Ralph, Ph.D. told Truthout, noting that such laws are common in the US.
“These laws presuppose that most women are conflicted in their decision about abortion and need additional time and information to make a decision,” said Ralph. “Our study finds that women are just as certain, if not more certain, about their decision to have an abortion as they are about other health care decisions … [and] it also highlights that women can simultaneously acknowledge that their abortion decision was not easy and that they are confident it was the right decision.”
A full 85 percent of those who disagreed with the statement, “This decision is easy for me to make” also agreed that abortion was the better choice for them.
Resisting Paternalistic Justifications for Abortion Restrictions
Dr. Leah Torres, a full-spectrum OB/Gyn living and practicing in Utah where the ANSIRH study was conducted, told Truthout that the findings resonated with her professional experience.
“As an abortion provider, I feel it is very important to acknowledge the difficulty the patient may be having, be open and compassionate, and allow for a discussion in order for the patient to have the space to make the right decision for themselves. Sometimes people decide to not have an abortion, and I then offer to provide their prenatal care. The most important part of their making the decision is that it’s their own decision without coercion and that it is what they feel is best for them at that time.”
The study found that the more abortion myths a patient believed — for example, that abortion causes breast cancer or can make someone less likely to conceive again — the more unsure they were before their first of two visits mandated by the state, 72 hours or more apart. Torres has found that this waiting period is harmful to patients.
“I think the pretense of the law is to try to reduce the risk of regret, but then everyone should wait three days before making any decisions, right?” Torres said. “Whatever the intention of the law is, the messages it sends are: pregnant people aren’t smart enough to make their own decisions and physicians can’t be trusted to ensure the patient is fully informed and doing what’s best for her. These two messages perpetuate the stigma and shame surrounding abortion, and no one should feel ashamed for making decisions about if and when to have a family.”
Torres called the GOP ticket’s proposal to eliminate the exceptions to federal funding of abortion for victims of rape and incest “an ideological stance” that “does not respect the physical and mental trauma that can come with continuing an unwanted pregnancy, whether it resulted from rape/incest or otherwise.” She contests the notion that legislators should have any input as “they are not physicians, have no training in patient care, and should no more interfere with my job than I should interfere in courtroom proceedings by blurting out ‘Objection!'”
Torres added that she wishes elected officials wouldn’t “treat abortion or abortion providers any differently than you would treat any other outpatient medical procedure or skilled clinician.” She speaks passionately about the harm done to her patients because of all manner of unnecessary, supposedly regret-preventing laws — particularly the inaccurate language she is required to read to those considering abortion.
“The script describes risks of and alternatives to having an abortion — things that physicians providing informed consent already discuss with any patient making any health care decision,” she said. “It also includes language I deem as coercive.”
Torres must “inform” patients that financial assistance for prenatal care is available through the state and that the father has a legal obligation to provide child support. She is also required to tell them about free adoption services.
“The information also mandates me to lie to my patients by telling them one of the risks of the procedure is ‘post abortion syndrome,’ a condition that does not and has never existed,” Torres said. “One of the major effects this has is on the doctor-patient relationship. Someone is sitting in front of their physician and watching their physician read medical information and coercive language from a piece of paper. It calls into question for the patient whether she can trust the people taking care of her. It is demeaning to the physician and an intrusion on the relationship the patient has with her doctor.”
The creators of the ANSIRH report seem to have put to bed the idea that the part of that intrusion purportedly done on behalf of the mother is more than unnecessary; it is harmful to the patient. Whether or not this new evidence will find its way into the political discourse of the election cycle remains to be seen. Debate moderators since the primary season seem largely resolute in ignoring an issue that affects every aspect of life for anyone who can become pregnant, despite the plea from pro-choice groups that they ask about abortion. With one debate left, there’s still time for an informative discussion between the presidential candidates, but the extremist rhetoric from the right makes that seem unlikely.
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