different protest signs read "My Body My Choice"; "You can only ban safe abortion"; "Abortion is healthcare"; "Bans off our bodies"

Molly Butler / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Right-wing media figures complain about study that estimates the effect of state abortion bans on pregnancies caused by rape

Trigger warning: This piece contains discussion of sexual violence and forced pregnancy.

New research estimates that states with rape exceptions written into abortion bans are still likely to see large numbers of rape-caused pregnancies carried to term. In the past, right-wing media outlets have praised reproductive health restrictions that include exceptions — saying they’re more politically palatable than complete bans — but in light of the new research that implies rape exceptions are going ungranted, they’re downplaying the findings while relying on anti-abortion researchers for evidence.

  • New data suggests that in spite of rape exceptions in some abortion bans, tens of thousands of such pregnancies have been carried to term

    • A new research letter published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Internal Medicine estimated that approximately 64,545 pregnancies caused by rape were carried to term in states with abortion bans, including those with rape exceptions. This figure includes rape victims who were unable to seek abortion care between July 2022 — the first month after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — and January 2024. Other researchers have noted that the estimate, which was calculated using crime statistics from the FBI and survey data from the Centers for Disease Control, is likely conservative. [PBS NewsHour, 1/25/24; JAMA Network, 1/24/24]
    • The researchers have acknowledged limitations of their work and explained that their number is an estimation based on extrapolating data, but other experts say their data still highlights the vast scale of denied abortion exceptions. Sociology professor Amanda Stevenson, who specializes in abortion and family planning and was not involved with the study, said that “given the inherent uncertainty around data on rape and conception rates,” researchers had no choice to use approximations in their methods. She added, “The precise estimate is much less important to me ... than the fact that the number is large.” Alison Norris, another unaffiliated academic with a specialty in reproductive health, told USA Today that though the research may have limitations,the study was “extremely, thoughtfully executed." [Scientific American, 1/25/24; USA Today, 1/29/24]
    • In 2023, The New York Times reported that while most abortion bans “make exceptions in certain circumstances, commonly to protect the health or life of the patient, or in the case of rape or incest,” post-Roe data and accounts from physicians, advocates, policymakers have shown that only few exceptions are ultimately granted. Though exceptions may be written into abortion restrictions for instances of rape, incest, or grave health risks, issues remain with exceptions requiring police involvement in the case of rape-caused pregnancies, failing to account for poor mental health conditions, or being vague in terms of when they’re allowed in emergency situations.  [The New York Times, 1/21/23; 19th News, 10/24/23; USA Today, 1/27/24]
  • Right-wing and anti-abortion outlets dismiss the findings and attack the researchers

    • In National Review, anti-abortion writer and Charlotte Lozier Institute senior associate scholar Michael J. New criticized the research paper as “one of the worst and most misleading pieces of advocacy research that I have ever encountered.” New, who also writes for the anti-abortion group Live Action, further suggested that the study is biased as some of its authors work for “organizations that support legal abortion” and chastised JAMA Internal Medicine for serving as “mouthpieces for supporters of legal abortion.” The piece was also republished by LifeNews. [National Review, 1/25/24; Live Action, accessed 2/2/24; LifeNews, 1/26/24]
    • An article from Live Action asked, “Is the new ‘research’ on rape-related pregnancies reliable?,” and claimed that media outlets like NPR are using the JAMA report to “support a pro-abortion position.” The piece cited New’s National Review article and went on to baselessly suggest the study’s authors are “attempting to insinuate that rape, or pregnancy due to rape, happens more frequently in pro-life states than in pro-abortion states” and ignoring the “rape victims who choose life instead of abortion.” [Live Action, 1/25/24]
    • The Washington Examiner reported that “high-profile abortion rights proponents” like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) cited the data but others “faulted the premise of the paper, as well as its methodology.” The article cites both New and a board member of the anti-abortion group American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists as expert opinions in the article, with the latter asserting that the JAMA research letter was “exploiting the trauma of rape to push an abortion narrative.” New condemned public health journals like JAMA as supposed “mouthpieces for certain ideological causes, especially abortion.” [Washington Examiner 1/27/24]
    • On X, Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins posted a video criticizing the study and its authors, whom she claims are “using this to push an extremist agenda trying to justify abortion all nine months.” Hawkins also said that the number of rapes in abortion-restricting states from 2022 to 2024 used by researchers (591,000) to come up with the estimated 64,000 pregnancies was a dramatic overestimate, asking, “If that is true, why aren’t we declaring a state of emergency on sexual assault in this country?" (Most incidents of sexual assault go unreported to authorities.) In the post, Hawkins specifically thanked New “for exposing this absurd study.” [Twitter/X, 1/29/24; Brennan Center for Justice, 10/4/18
    • A piece from the right-wing Media Research Center declared that public media outlets PBS and NPR uncritically reported on the study and accused them of suppressing dissenting opinions, writing, “No one who would criticize or even question this effort was allowed on air.” The article, later also published in LifeNews, also described it as “a very biased Planned Parenthood study” because the study’s primary author, Dr. Samuel Dickman, serves as medical director of Planned Parenthood Montana, even though the study disclosed this connection and there is no indication that Dickman worked on this study in his capacity as medical director. The piece included a large quote from New’s National Review piece. [Media Research Center, 1/29/24; LifeNews, 1/29/24]
  • Previously, conservative media have advocated for abortion policy to be set by individual states and for any restrictions to contain some exceptions to minimize voter backlash

    • Both before and after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization stripped the federal right to an abortion, abortion media adversaries championed the idea of overturning Roe v. Wade as an opportunity for conservative-leaning states to implement restrictions. However, as the post-Roe political climate has repeatedly shown that voters in seemingly “red” states support abortion access, anti-abortion politicians and advocacy groups have begun to reverse previous pushes for state-led abortion legislation, instead backing a federal abortion ban. [Media Matters, 1/8/24]
    • On his radio program, Fox News host Sean Hannity said that taking a “very hard line on abortion” is a “losing issue,” citing the failed campaign of Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who “doesn’t make exceptions for rape, incest, or the mother’s life.” Hannity contrasted Mastriano’s position to his own, saying, “I make exceptions between people that make choices, and people that don’t make a choice, in the case of rape or incest or whatever situation that may be.” [Premiere Radio Networks, The Sean Hannity Show, 12/12/23]
    • On Eric Bolling The Balance, Newsmax contributor and former Trump adviser Jason Miller advised Republicans to adapt their messaging on abortion to voter preferences, stating, “We have to learn as a party how to talk about it. We have to have the exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother.” [Newsmax, Eric Bolling The Balance, 11/10/23]
    • In the week following the 2022 midterm elections, Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt said, “Candidates that did not make the exceptions for abortion did not do well.” She noted, “They paid a big price for that,” citing Mastriano’s 14-point loss for Pennsylvania governorship compared to Mehmet Oz, who supported abortion exceptions and lost his Senate race by two points. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 11/14/22]