A new study on abortion restrictions has delighted the mainstream media, but its results are not as clear-cut as most reports indicate. The study, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, claimed that an Ohio regulation of medical abortions led to more side effects, complications, and follow-up visits. According to this study, the restrictions, which took effect in 2011, imposed outdated protocols on Ohio abortion facilities, apparently leading to substantially greater health risks for mothers.
Unfortunately, the media outlets covering this story, including Time, Slate, NBCNews.com, the Washington Post, and the New York Times have reported these findings as if they are settled fact. None of these outlets bothered to interview pro-life groups or medical experts in Ohio or made even the most perfunctory effort to learn about the regulation’s history. If they had done so, they would’ve discovered that the legislation was introduced in response to the Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of mifepristone, or RU-486, the so-called “abortion pill.” RU-486 was approved in 2000 and, at the time, other countries that had already legalized the drug were reporting possible health complications. As such, many critics were concerned about the fact that the FDA sped up the approval process, perhaps as the result of political pressure from the Clinton administration.
After RU-486 was approved, the number of medical abortions increased dramatically. For instance, in Ohio, the percentage increased from three percent in 2001 to just over 13 percent in 2004. During this time, concerns about the health risks of the drug were still very much present. Even the New York Times reported in 2005 that the FDA and Center for Disease Control would hold a meeting after four California women died of complications from medical abortions.
Consequently, Ohio and other states sought to regulate such abortions to protect the health of mothers. In 2004, Ohio passed legislation requiring that medical abortions be performed consistently with FDA protocols. However, the law was delayed by legal challenges and thus did not take effect until 2011. During this time, some of the accepted standards for medical abortions changed, but the intent of the 2004 legislation remained to protect women, not to impose outdated protocols on Ohio abortion facilities.
Furthermore, several features of the new regulations made it more likely that complications would be reported. For instance, the law specifically required that adverse events related to RU-486 be reported to the State Medical Board. The regulations also required two additional visits to the abortion facility. Both of these requirements would increase the likelihood that a side effect or complication would be reported. In 2011, control of the governor’s office shifted from pro-abortion Ted Strickland to pro-life John Kasich. Many Ohio pro-lifers believe that, as a result of Kasich’s election, the State Medical Board began to better regulate abortion facilities and more thoroughly report possible complications. Indeed, four years after Kasich took office, the number of post-abortion complications increased by 34 percent.
Even taking this study at face value, there is less information available than initially meets the eye. For instance, the study did not examine the whole state. The researchers identified four abortion facilities in Ohio and compared health outcomes before and after the new regulations took effect, but these four clinics were not chosen at random. The researchers work at the University of California–San Francisco medical school, which publishes many studies sympathetic to abortion. It is possible that these researchers intentionally chose four Ohio clinics with low reported complication rates in order to make the new regulations appear ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. Additionally, after the regulations took effect, fewer women sought medication abortions, but those who did tended to seek abortions later in pregnancy, which poses greater health risks to the mother. When the researchers held this factor and other factors constant, the difference in health risks greatly diminished.
The mainstream media are always quick to publicize studies which purportedly find that abortion regulations pose health risks. But other research has shown that pro-life policies and laws frequently offer health benefits to the mothers involved. Women in Ireland, where abortion is restricted, fare better in a range of public health metrics than women in other parts of the United Kingdom. Additionally, in 2012 a study in the Journal of Health Policy reported that states with waiting periods and/or public funding restrictions had significantly lower post-abortion complication rates. Unfortunately, studies like these tend to receive little to no attention.