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Media Mislead on Study about Self-Induced Abortion

An imaging table at the Reproductive Health Services of Planned Parenthood St. Louis Region in St. Louis, M., May 28, 2019. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)

The American Journal of Public Health has published a study that purports to show increased interest among U.S. women in self-induced abortion. The study analyzes data from Women on Web (WoW), a website that sends abortion pills to women in countries with limited access to abortion. The results indicate that between October 15, 2017, and August 15, 2018, more than 6,000 U.S. women went online to request abortion pills. The data also suggest that women living in states that the Guttmacher Institute has deemed “hostile” to abortion rights were statistically more likely to request abortion pills online.

Unsurprisingly, much media coverage of this study has been misleading. For instance, most headlines have failed to clarify that Women on Web did not dispense any abortion pills to U.S. women, as the site only sends them to women in countries where abortion is restricted. While Women on Web has been operating since 2006, the study only considers data from one ten-month timeframe and therefore can’t provide evidence that there has been an increase in the number of U.S. women requesting abortion pills online. More than 800,000 women obtain legal abortions in the U.S. annually, while only 6,000 women requested abortion pills through the website during a ten-month span, indicating that a relatively small percentage of abortion-minded women are seeking abortion pills through Women on Web.

Furthermore, there exist problems with the study’s methodology. Guttmacher has deemed certain states “hostile” to abortion rights based on the presence or absence of twelve different policies pertaining to life issues. But this is a crude measure of access to abortion. For instance, Guttmacher deems Alabama hostile to abortion, even though the five largest cities in Alabama — Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville, Mobile, and Tuscaloosa — all have abortion facilities. Another methodological problem with the study is that some women may have attempted to request abortion pills online on multiple occasions, which could skew the results; the researchers make no mention of this.

As abortion rates decline and as abortion clinics close, many media outlets have tried to argue that there has been an increase in self-induced abortions, but they have provided only weak evidence. The Guttmacher Institute’s 2017 abortion report indicated that self-induced abortions might be a factor in the recent U.S. abortion-rate decline, pointing to a short-term increase in the percentage of non-hospital facilities that reported treating at least one person for an attempted self-induced abortion. But Guttmacher only presented data from two surveys, and considering that there has been a recent increase in chemical abortions, some of these reports could reflect an increase in patients who encountered complications after taking the RU-486 abortion pill.

Similarly, a 2015 Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) study claimed that there was an increase in self-induced abortions after the state’s H.B. 2 took effect, resulting in the closure of several abortion facilities in Texas. This study also suffered from a number of methodological shortcomings. For example, it asked women whether they had ever attempted to self-induce an abortion but did not ask whether they had attempted to do so after H.B. 2 took effect. As a result, the study provided no evidence that self-induced abortions actually increased since H.B. 2 took effect in 2013. Additionally, women who legally obtained medical abortions by taking the RU-486 pill under medical supervision might have misunderstood the survey question and reported that they self-induced an abortion.

As states endeavor to enact pro-life laws, many researchers and their media allies seem desperate to find evidence that pro-life policies are causing a public-health crisis. So far all they have done is mislead people. For instance, corrected data published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found that, contrary to previous research, there had been no spike in maternal-mortality rates after Texas cut Planned Parenthood funding. Contrary to researchers’ claims, there has been no widespread increase in unintended pregnancies or teen births in Texas or any other state that has cut taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood. These latest reports claiming that there has been an increase in self-induced abortions are just the latest attempt to scare policymakers away from sound policies to protect the unborn. As always, pro-lifers would do well to stay the course.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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