Confessions of a Former Anti-Choicer: Lessons Learned On Misinformation and IndoctrinationPhoto by Alex Wong/Getty Politics Features Reproductive Rights
In his most recent State of the Union address, President Trump denounced a recent New York law and a Virginia bill, both of which permit “late-term abortions.”
“To defend the dignity of every person, I am asking the Congress to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children who can feel pain in the mother’s womb,” Trump said.
Needless to say, these are fighting words. I mean that quite literally—the use of the phrase “late-term abortion” is intentionally misleading and inaccurate. When speaking about “pregnancy,” late-term refers to 41 weeks or longer of gestation, a time during which abortions do not occur.
“‘Late-term’ is an invention of anti-abortion extremists to confuse, mislead and increase stigma. The appropriate language is ‘abortions later in pregnancy,’” Dr. Jennifer Conti told CNN.
In fact, the term “abortions later in pregnancy” typically refers to terminations that occur at or after 21 weeks’ gestation. Stats from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that only 1.3 percent of abortions happen during this span of time, which means, as Dr. Conti notes, that “abortions that occur beyond 24 weeks make up less than 1% of all procedures.” In short, these procedures are rare, and often only occur because the health of the mother is at stake or the fetus has developed a condition that means it will not survive outside of the uterus. When you break down the purposefully manipulative phrase “late-term abortion,” you reveal the truth, which is that abortions later in pregnancy are uncommon products of dire circumstances.
While dissecting this term may seem nitpicky, the language we use around abortion proves vital to how we understand the issue. For years, I was anti-choice, predominantly because of the rhetoric I was fed as a young teenager attending a small parochial Catholic school just outside Seattle. Despite being nestled in the liberal Pacific Northwest, our parish boasted one of the most conservative congregations in the archdiocese and—as if to announce that status—a giant mosaic of a Golden Fetus either floating in space or the sea (my siblings and I could never come to a consensus), like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. My older sister claims that she once backed our van into a telephone pole by the church because she was too bewitched by the sight of the Golden Fetus while reversing, and that the subsequent dent was fetus shaped as a result. In truth, she’s just a bad driver, but we loved anything that added to the mythos of the Golden Fetus.
As a part of our anti-abortion education, seventh- and eighth-graders from my school went on the March for Life after a cursory talk from a parish speaker. This woman informed us, in no uncertain terms, that Abortion Is Murder. She compared a fetus to an acorn, telling the class that the acorn is defined by its ultimate purpose: to become a tree. Likewise, she said, we know what a fetus is because, in due time, it will become a person. I drank in every word. As a middle-schooler, I was a straight-A student and a people pleaser. I didn’t question this adult—she was intelligent and well-spoken, and she was essentially indoctrinating impressionable teenagers.
However, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman aptly pointed out the logical fallacy at the heart of the “abortion is murder” sentiment. He wrote: “If abortion is morally indistinguishable from killing a newborn, though, why shouldn’t those who procure abortions be severely punished? It’s the clear logical implication of the pro-life argument.”
But hardly anyone truly regards having an abortion as equal in evil to killing an adult or a child. Hardly anyone thinks a woman who has an abortion belongs in a cell next to a guy who strangles his child.
About 1 of every 4 American women will have an abortion by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute. If you regard abortion as murder and think your sister, daughter, aunt, niece, cousin or friend should go to prison for decades — or be executed — if she ever terminated a pregnancy, you’re being consistent. If you regard abortion as murder and think they deserve a gentle path to healing, you’re not.
However, when you’re 12 and being told about the issue for the first time, you don’t consider this, and adults are entirely aware of that reality. They may believe they’re doing the right thing by imparting these “lessons,” but intentionally indoctrinating children is ethically pretty awful. I’m not saying middle school kids shouldn’t be confronted with complex ideas. Tackling issues at a young age helps form one’s opinions and value systems, but, more importantly, it hones critical thinking skills in general. The problem is, no one had quite taught me critical thinking—a common problem in our education system. At that point in time, I couldn’t parse apart the fact that the argument delivered to me only came from one side—a very, very biased side that has long fought against women’s reproductive rights.
Yes, I realize you could apply this analysis to anything a child has learned from a young age. Our parents and the parental figures around us are given the daunting task of shaping us into whatever their idea of a “good person” is, and some people really go full throttle in crafting their kids into mini-mes. However, the anti-abortion movement stands out in its visible reliance on misinforming or indoctrinating vulnerable parties, namely minors and women in desperate situations.
The propaganda continued when we attended the March for Life, which anti-choicers carry out annually near the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. We were bussed down to Olympia—the capital of Washington and, ironically, the birthplace of riot grrrl—for the occasion. In all honesty, we looked forward to the outing, not because we were particularly enthusiastic anti-choice middle schoolers, but because it was an excuse to get out of class for the day. Parents could keep their kids from attending if they didn’t approve, but I only recall one girl from the class below me who didn’t go. We sat near our friends on the bus, played MASHY RAP and laughed at the hilarious signs toted by the small pro-choice cohort opposite us on the capitol steps. Sure, abortion was murder to us, but we had to admit that “Get your rosaries off my ovaries” was a good slogan. The entire time, we were incepted with anti-choice messages, whether through songs or speeches delivered by various figures as we stood outside the capitol. To this day, large numbers of young people and religious groups continue to attend the March for Life in various parts of the country.
The anti-choice indoctrination ended in high school because, despite being an all-girls institution run by nuns, the academy was fairly liberal. Believe it or not, I actually learned some useful information in sex education class. I still clung to my anti-abortion stance, until one day a classmate asked me what I’d do if I became pregnant. I knew instinctively I wouldn’t want to have a baby; I had too many plans that didn’t seem child-compatible. At the same time, I didn’t want to have an abortion. I’d been taught since seventh grade that abortion was tantamount to murder, a lesson ingrained into me like it was a multiplication table or new vocabulary word. Repeated and, to my young mind, benign.
After a pregnant pause (yes, I suck), I decided that I’d ride a roller coaster until I miscarried. No, I’m not kidding. Thankfully, though, the absurdity of that statement made me realize that if I didn’t want to be pregnant, I may as well terminate the pregnancy safely and legally with an abortion.
Looking back now, I don’t think I would have thought about abortion even a little bit during middle school if my conservative school hadn’t thrust the topic upon me. No one close to me was having one, and it wasn’t exactly dinner table fodder (my pro-choice older sister had led the way in clashing with my parents on the issue). Maybe I would have spent a couple of my brain cells ruminating on abortion if it came up in a television show, but that was about it. It wasn’t until high school, when becoming sexually active was more than just a distant notion, that I considered abortion with new gravity.
I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush; there are scrupulous, caring people within the anti-choice movement. The tactics of the fringe speak for themselves, though, and the digital age has only enabled the rapid spread of anti-abortion propaganda—whether through viral posts on Facebook with purposefully graphic and misleading content, or the deceptive listing of “pregnancy crisis centers” (aka anti-choice hubs usually run by religious organizations) as abortion clinics on Google.
Rossalyn Warren of the New York Times details how one such Facebook page, LifeNews.com, spreads misinformation about the links between abortion and breast cancer:
LifeNews, which has just under one million followers on Facebook, is one of several large anti-abortion sites that can command hundreds of thousands of views on a single post. These sites produce vast amounts of misinformation; the Facebook page for the organization Live Action, for instance, has two million Facebook followers and posts videos claiming there’s a correlation between abortion and breast cancer.
That alleged link between abortion and breast cancer has been proven unequivocally false. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists confirmed that there is no causal relationship between the two. While previous studies may have shown a correlation, the ACOG explains those results as a product of flawed methodology as they relied on retrospective reporting on abortion, which affects the accuracy of the studies. Newer studies negate the supposed link.
The particular methods favored by LifeNews and its ilk, while perfected by American interest groups, are put into practice on a global scale, including in countries like Ireland where abortion has only recently become legal. I personally saw misinformation and indoctrination at play while attending college in Ireland. It was strange yo-yoing from an anti-choice background in a predominately pro-choice state to a newfound pro-choice fervor under Ireland’s anti-abortion constitution.
In October of the first half of my senior year of high school, Savita Halappanavar died at University Hospital Galway because a doctor refused to perform the abortion she requested, despite a miscarriage being imminent. Halappanavar delivered a stillborn child four days before dying of complications from sepsis. Back then, a woman’s life had to be in danger in order for a pregnancy to be terminated in Ireland. Halappanavar’s death showed that even the clause safeguarding “the equal right to life of the mother” still left women’s lives in very real danger.
Abortion was outlawed under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, even in cases of rape or incest, and punishment was up to 14 years’ imprisonment. The amendment was voted in via referendum in 1983, with a sweeping two-thirds of voters favoring the “right to life of the unborn.” Back then, Catholicism was nearly a compulsory part of Irish culture that leaked—no, more like flooded—into politics. The Ireland I came to in 2013 was worlds apart (homosexuality decriminalized, divorce legalized), but still tethered to its religious past. While most of my friends had been baptized and attended Catholic schools, few were practicing or even believing.
Walking around Dublin in the 2010s, it was common to spot someone wearing a black crew-neck sweatshirt with “Repeal” inscribed across it in white. The minimalist message called for the removal of the Eighth Amendment. I had arrived during a time of true grassroots politics, and the swell of activism I experienced and participated in while living in Dublin was thrilling. It culminated in the referendum last May, with “yes” voters supporting the right to choose and “no” voters wanting the Eighth Amendment to stay in place.
In the preceding months, the same anti-choice tactics I grew up with crept in. There were Americans who came over to campaign for the no side, a legal gray area as they were not on volunteer visas and angered Irish citizens who felt this was overstepping boundaries, to say the least. One particular spate of posters from the anti-choice ‘Save the 8th’ campaign asked passersby how they felt about abortion up to the six month of pregnancy—when the referendum only allowed for unrestricted abortion up to three months.
Other signage depicted a child with Down’s syndrome, alleging that disability would be new grounds for abortion if the referendum passed. Health Minister Simon Harris told the Irish Examiner:
I think it’s very upsetting to say to people with Down Syndrome in Ireland that you’ve only been born in Ireland because of the eighth amendment. The facts don’t bear that out. I think it’s actually quite a disgusting thing to say to the parents of children and, indeed, adult children with Down Syndrome. We’ve specifically excluded disability as a ground in the legislation.
Finally May 25 arrived, and Irish citizens overwhelmingly voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment. The fight’s not over, of course (look at the U.S.—Roe v. Wade is over four decades old, and it’s more endangered than ever). The website set up by Ireland’s Health Service Executive on abortion, called MyOptions.ie, is under siege thanks to the rival myoptions.website. The latter is an anti-choice site claiming links between abortion and cancer, and the HSE has complained to Google because a search for My Options shows this as the top return. There’s even a bricks version of the fake My Options service.
Those attacking reproductive rights, whether abroad or at home, seem to want to cut off choice on all sides. I still come back to an incident during the 2015 March for Choice in Dublin. It reminds me of how things could be, how they should be. I went to the march with one of my friends, and saw the Students’ Union president standing with her daughter, who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old. The cluster of college students, myself included, were given free March for Choice t-shirts. The girl clearly wanted to be just like the older kids, asking her mother plaintively for a t-shirt. The SU president’s response was succinct, perfect and something I often think about.
She told her daughter she couldn’t have a t-shirt until she was old enough to decide how she felt about it.