Balkinization  

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Woman-Protective Strategy as a Campaign of Misinformation

Guest Blogger

[For The Conference on The Future of Sexual And Reproductive Rights]

Nada L Stotland, MD, MPH

The latest abortion-related decision of the United States Supreme Court concerns a rarely used procedure used to terminate a late-term pregnancy when the fetus has a condition incompatible with life outside the uterus, using the method safest for the pregnant woman and most likely to leave her safely able to have more children. The decision includes this statement: “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained….Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow.” [550 U.S., pp 28-29, 2007] This statement, now enshrined in the decision of the highest court in the land, is but one, if a very important one, manifestation of the success of a calculated and concerted campaign of misinformation. It demonstrates the impact of carefully chosen prejudicial language that has become standard American parlance: ‘partial birth abortion,’ ‘pro-life.’ Assertions that abortion raises the risk of breast cancer or infertility, while they still surface, have been successfully discredited. Anti-abortion activists have devised a new strategy. Since the arguments of the pro-choice movement have centered on women’s rights, the anti-choice movement has adopted the argument that abortion causes psychiatric damage to women.

This is a calculated strategy. The production of a body of published literature purporting to demonstrate that abortion causes psychiatric damage has been largely orchestrated by David Reardon, PhD. The PhD was obtained from an institution designated by the United States Government Accountability Office as a “diploma mill”. To quote Reardon: “post-abortion healing …a great evangelization opportunity for the Church,” and “opposing abortion because it harms women…is a neglected rhetorical strategy,” and “Because abortion is evil, we can expect, and even know, that it will harm those who participate in it.” [Ethics and Medicine, vol.18, pp22-32, summer 2002] This body of literature, some of which has made its way into otherwise reputable journals, is rife with serious methodological errors. Nearly all of these studies fail to compare the outcome of abortion with the only other option for a woman with an unwanted pregnancy: having to carry the pregnancy to term. These studies fail to correct for the woman’s circumstances and pre-abortion state of mental health. They also confuse feelings(sadness) or judgments (regret) with psychiatric illness(clinical depression).

This strategy has succeeded in convincing much of the American public that abortion poses a psychiatric risk and has been the basis for judicial decisions and the adoption of laws requiring that physicians who perform abortions tell their patients not only that abortion ends the life of a complete, separate, human being, but also that abortion puts them at risk of suicide, substance abuse, difficulty relating to subsequent children, and other dire consequences. This unjustified warning itself increases the risk of psychiatric complications. The penalties for non-compliance are severe.

Non-biased studies reveal that the incidence of psychiatric illness after childbirth is orders of magnitude greater than after abortion. Women react to abortion with a wide range of feelings, the most common of which is relief. These feelings, and judgments about the decision, can coexist and often change over time. There is no evidence that adolescents are not capable of making decisions about pregnancy or that they experience worse psychiatric outcomes than adults or than adolescents who carry to term. It is crucial that the American public, legislators who make laws, and the judges called upon to decide about the constitutionality of laws, limiting access to abortion have accurate information and use that information in making their decisions.


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