Online forums and right-wing media outlets are circulating false statistics about the alleged impact of the COVID-19 vaccine on pregnant people, manipulating the numbers to advance an incorrect narrative about the safety of vaccines, which preliminary studies say do not affect pregnancies.
In June, for example, LifeSiteNews -- a conservative anti-abortion outlet that has been banned on Facebook and YouTube for spreading COVID-19 and vaccine disinformation -- removed an article pending “further review” after inaccurately reporting that a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found an “82% miscarriage rate in vaccinated women.” Social media posts discussing the article -- with no update regarding its status -- have even put that number as high as 84%. But both figures are inaccurate interpretations of the study, whose preliminary findings yielded no obvious “safety signals” indicating risk to pregnant people who get the vaccine.
The NEJM study found a miscarriage rate of only 12.6%; those spreading the higher numbers made their own calculation by eliminating from the denominator people who got vaccinated in the third trimester (when miscarriage is less common). But they failed to account for the thousands of study participants who were still pregnant or had not yet reported back. Experts have concluded that there is “no evidence of a causal link between COVID-19 inoculation and miscarriage,” and PolitiFact specifically concluded that the 82% figure was the result of “cherry-picking and manipulating data from a preliminary study.”
But that hasn’t stopped right-wing media, and misinformers on the right-wing fringe, from circulating these claims.
On the extremist social networking site Gab, former GOP Senate candidate and QAnon conspiracy theorist Lauren Witzke shared an archived version of the LifeSiteNews article, writing: “IMPORTANT: An 82% miscarriage rate with pregnant mothers who get the jab, and they are HIDING it!” This post garnered over 600 likes and 500 reposts. The archived version of the article also spread on a number of fringe sites, including in pro-Trump communities and on 4chan. The claim was also spread by Infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his show.
The misrepresentation of the NEJM study is just one of many ways right-wing entities have tried using manipulated data to cause panic over the effects of the COVID-19 vaccine on pregnant people.
The New York Times reported in December 2020 about a retired British doctor who became known as an “unlikely hero of the so-called anti-vaxxers” for sparking a round of distrust in the vaccine by speculating, without evidence, that it could cause infertility in women. In January, claims that a pregnant doctor had miscarried after receiving the COVID vaccine were picked up by right-wing figures such as Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson and spread on right-wing Telegram channels. In April, claims that proximity to a vaccinated person could cause a woman to miscarry or alter her menstrual cycle began spreading on social media as well. USA Today debunked this conspiracy theory, noting that experts had called such a notion “pure fiction.”
These concocted narratives about the impact of the COVID vaccines on pregnant people have also begun to gain traction internationally. In May, NBC News reported on a social media post from a butcher shop owner in Ontario who asked vaccinated individuals to order curbside so as to “protect” his women customers. In March, a U.K.-based anti-vaccine outlet, the Daily Expose, published an article titled “Number of women to lose their unborn child after having the Covid Vaccine increases by 366% in just six weeks.” In following articles, the outlet alleged this percentage continued to grow, with a 483% increase in miscarriages after seven weeks and a 2,000% increase after 14 weeks. However, as several outlets -- including Reuters -- have reported, these numbers were taken wildly out of context, “having failed to mention the overall increase in the number of vaccines being administered,” among other flaws.
Although the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has acknowledged that more research needs to be conducted on the effects of the COVID-19 vaccine on pregnant people, much of the evidence and expert opinion available finds that there is little cause for concern. Yet, despite consistent debunks, right-wing outlets and entities continue to circulate anti-vaccine disinformation by ignoring or manipulating expert opinion and data.