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8 myths and facts about abortion

Originally published by Breaking the Chains magazine.

Myth 1: Criminalizing abortions stops them and save lives.

Fact: Criminalizing abortion neither stops them nor reduces their numbers. It just makes abortions unsafe. It’s not ‘pro-life,’ but causes pain and death.

Abortion rates are roughly the same in countries where it is legal and where it is illegal. The Guttmacher Institute reports that in 2017 the abortion rate in countries that prohibit or limit abortion was 37 per 1,000 people and in countries where abortion is legal the abortion rate was 34 per 1,000.

In countries where abortion is legal and available it is one of the safest procedures. Where it is not legal, it is unsafe. 47,000 women die each year from complications from abortions performed where abortion is a crime, safe abortions are unaffordable or abortions are performed by untrained people in unsanitary environments. From 4.7 to 13.2% of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion according to the World Health Organization.

Even under the most restrictive circumstances, those who can afford it, can purchase an abortion. If abortion is criminalized in the Unites States, working class and poor women, those least likely to be able to afford to leave their jobs and families to travel to a place where abortion is legal, will be left with little choice but to turn to illegal and unsafe abortions, risking pain and death.

Myth 2: Abortion is ‘shameful’ and a ‘last resort.’

Fact: Abortion is not a moral transgression. It is a needed medical procedure that carries no stigma, and an essential part of reproductive healthcare. 

Abortion is one most commonly performed procedures in the United States, Nearly a third of U.S. women have had one by age 45. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and seven other medical societies, see abortion as an “essential health care service.” An inability to obtain an abortion, they say, can have longstanding and profound impacts on a person’s life, health, and well-being.

In addition to determining if or when to have children, reasons for seeking an abortion can include contraception failure, barriers to contraception use and access, rape, incest, intimate partner violence, fetal abnormalities, illness during pregnancy and exposure to medications or environmental toxins that cause fetal abnormalities. There are pregnancy complications that could be so severe that abortion is the only measure to preserve a woman’s health or save her life. 

The American Public Health Association explains that “denying, delaying and impeding access to abortion increases a woman’s risk of injury or death.” It adds, “abortion should not be treated differently than other health measure.” It is a “fundamental right essential for women’s lives, for population health, and for advancing income equality, women’s rights, and women’s individual freedom.”

Even people who publicly oppose abortion can suddenly realize how essential it is when they or their relatives need one. Abortion clinic staff where anti-abortion protests are held say that it not unusual for a protester to sneak into the clinic for an abortion for herself, for her daughter or for a friend (Women’s Health Activist, March/April 2016).

Myth 3: All religious people are against abortion.

Fact: Many religious people and faith groups support the right to abortion. Tying religion to the anti-abortion cause is cover for an attack on women’s rights.

The only religious view getting publicity is the minority view that all abortions must be stopped. But many religious individuals and groups openly support abortion. “Religion” has become smokescreen for an extreme current that is using women’s bodies as the arena to roll back the gains of women, the working class, oppressed people, transgender people and gender non-conforming people.

More than half of abortion patients hold religious beliefs. The majority of Jews (70%), Muslims (51%), Buddhists (69%), Hindus (62%), Unitarian Universalists (83%) mainstream Protestants (59%), Black Protestants (56%) and white Roman Catholics (52%) support legal access to abortion in all or most cases.

Many religious groups are actively pro-abortion, often citing their faith as the reason. Among these are the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the National Council of Jewish Women and Catholics for Choice. The Texas Freedom Network has 30 Reproductive Freedom Congregations which pledge to support full reproductive rights, including abortion, and not to shame anyone who has an abortion.

There is a long history of religious support for abortion. Fifty years ago, before abortion was legal, Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion defied the law. At its height, 3,000 clergy members in 38 states helped 450,000 women get safe abortions.

Myth 4: Abortion is not political. It is very private and not something we should talk about.

Fact: Abortion is a deeply political issue that needs to be raised publicly because it is not a guaranteed right but something we must constantly struggle to win.

An abortion performed on an individual’s body is certainly private and personal. However, relegating abortion to a private, non-discussible realm keeps women isolated from each other when support, sharing, and solidarity are needed.

Silencing women silences the real experts on abortion — those who have them, might need to have them or were denied them. It leaves the political field open to self-styled “experts” like the women-shaming anti-abortion forces who speak publicly at every opportunity.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) did a survey of the people major broadcasting media went to when abortion was in the news. Some 65% were interviewed for their legal expertise, and 8% for medical expertise. Only 7% had personal experience with abortion and half of those were politicians. Only 2% were interviews with women who had had abortions. 

The people who have abortions can give a true picture of the social impact of anti-abortion laws on women and other working class people who benefit from abortions as a form of reproductive health care. Anti-abortion laws endanger health, reduce income and make life harder. 

Legal abortion was won through mass actions where women spoke out, demanding their rights loudly, publicly and at every opportunity. This is the best defense of abortion rights.

Myth 5: The right-wing is only against abortions.

Fact: Right-wing forces oppose other critical forms of reproductive healthcare like sex education and birth control for women. They advocate for the criminalization of miscarriage. 

Foes of abortion oppose contraception coverage for women in employer health plans and are against high school sex education that teaches anything but sexual abstinence. They seek to control and regulate the means of reproduction as a whole, and to take away this individual right.

Sex education. Abstinence-only education does not work. It fails to stop teens from having sex and denies information needed to deal with its consequences. Yet abortion foes so aggressively pursue it that 19 states only permit abstinence-only sex education. 

A comprehensive sex education course that is LGBTQ-inclusive, covers consent, contraception, informed decisions and accessing medical care empowers teens with knowledge and choices. It reduces teen pregnancy, the spread of STDs/STIs, unwanted pregnancies and even abortions.

Denying women birth control is discrimination. The majority in the country back the use of birth control, and nearly two-thirds of women of child-bearing age use it. Yet the courts let employers deny their women employees contraceptive coverage on religious grounds.

This unfairly penalizes women and is sex discrimination. Men can purchase inexpensive condoms over the counter. Women should have the same option. Only women and people with female reproductive organs must pay for a doctor’s visit and then purchase expensive prescription contraception (up to $600 a year for birth control pills).

Myth 6: Anti-abortion groups care deeply about women and babies. They are pro-family.

Fact: Opponents of abortion are part of a political current cutting government programs that help families and children.

Most women who have abortions are already parents. The reason they give is economic — they can’t afford another baby. Studies show they are right. Those seeking abortions but denied them experience higher rates of poverty. Instead of helping pregnant people afford more children, opponents of abortion make economic conditions harder for them.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, backed by wealthy individuals like the Koch brothers, writes model laws for right-wing legislators. ALEC has written bills that cut social spending, limit voting rights, weaken trade unions, loosen environmental regulations, oppose immigrant and trans rights, but cut taxes for corporations and the rich. ALEC leaders have boasted about their extensive efforts to advance state legislation severely restricting access to abortion.

State governments dominated by these forces are defunding programs meant to keep poor families afloat and using the money instead to pay for anti-abortion efforts. In ten states, money from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), a federal program assisting poor families with children pay for rent, food and childcare, is being diverted to fund anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. These centers pose as abortion clinics, but try to shame and scare women into not having abortions. Sham abortion clinics often target the poor women who are most in need of the defunded poverty programs.

Louisiana, for example, diverts poverty funds to phony clinics. Louisiana is called the “worst state in the country to raise children” mainly because one out of every three families with children lives in poverty there. Another example is Texas, which has diverted the most federal welfare money of any state to crisis pregnancy centers — $45 million since 2006. Texas has the country’s most restrictive abortion law, and 20% of the children there experience hunger. 

Myth 7: Laws to protect the rights of the fetus are pro-women and pro-family.

States have enacted 1,313 abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. Many, like SB 8 in Texas, are fetal rights laws. Often using the mis-term “unborn child,” these laws define a part of a woman’s body — fertilized eggs, embryos, fetuses — as legal persons separate from a pregnant woman and in often an adversarial relationship to the woman. These laws don’t just outlaw abortion, they criminalize pregnancy.

Under these laws women have been arrested for self-abortion. They have been accused of endangering their pregnancy for being in a car accident while pregnant, for falling down the stairs while pregnant, for taking prescription drugs while pregnant. A woman was convicted of manslaughter and jailed for having a miscarriage. Women have been arrested and some imprisoned for drug use or other behavior during pregnancy, even when no bad outcome occurred. 

These laws view women as hosts, diminishing their rights as legal persons, and as secondary to the so-called rights of the fetus. These laws portray pregnant people as untrustworthy with their bodies and in need of regulation by the state.

All major medical and public health associations oppose these laws as harmful to the health of women, children, families and to public health because they discourage pregnant people from seeking help they might need, including medical attention, out of fear of prosecution.

Myth 8: In 1973, the elite all-male Supreme Court saw the light and chose to protect women’s rights by legalizing abortion.

Fact: A mass movement forced the courts and politicians to grant abortion rights.

The Supreme Court was a conservative body in 1973. Abortion rights were not bestowed by it, they were wrested from the court by a national and militant women’s movement. The elite, all-male Supreme Court granted abortion on the basis of privacy, which opened the door to decades of attacks on abortion rights. Just a few years after the Court decision, the Hyde amendment cut off federal dollars for abortion. 

To win the Supreme Court decision, women organized speakouts in towns and cities. Rejecting secrecy and shame, they described the fear and humiliation they went through to have abortions when it was illegal and dangerous. Demonstrations for abortion rights were held nationally. Defying the law, women formed networks to guide their sisters to providers of safe abortions. Some women even learned how to perform abortions themselves. Abortion was won in struggle by a mass movement. 

Yet the Democratic Party claims responsibility for women’s gains, and that voting for them ensures reproductive rights. Democratic Party politicians have had 68 years to overturn the Hyde Amendment, denying women on Medicare their right to abortion, yet it still stands.

Bill Clinton, a Democratic president, dismantled the welfare system and plunged poor women into desperate poverty. Joe Biden supported the Hyde Amendment for decades until his 2020 presidential run. Today, Democrats in the Senate are dragging their feet on passing the Women’s Health Protection Act which can safeguard abortion rights. 

Politicians take action when the people force them to. Let’s pressure the U.S. Senate to pass the Women’s Health Protection Act! Women have been critical in every struggle for justice. When we stand up, organize, and fight, we can win abortion rights and reproductive, economic and social justice.

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