8 must-read fact checks debunking Trump’s abortion lies from his State of the Union address
Research ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT
President Donald Trump used his 2019 State of the Union address to promote right-wing media lies about state measures protecting abortion access. While media outlets struggled at times to properly contextualize and refute Trump’s misinformation, some outlets held Trump accountable by debunking his false, anti-choice statements and providing their audiences with accurate information about abortion.
During his State of the Union address, Trump lied about state measures to protect abortion rights -- sparking outrage from abortion opponents when his misinformation was corrected
Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address featured some anti-abortion lies that right-wing media have been consistently promoting. During President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, he incorrectly claimed that recent measures in Virginia and New York "would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother's womb moments before birth” and enable providers to "execute a baby after birth.” Trump concluded with a call for Congress "to pass legislation to prohibit the late-term abortion of children." Prior to his address, right-wing media had run wild with similar lies and misinformation about these measures, alleging that lawmakers were calling for “infanticide” or permitting abortion “up to birth.” [CNN, 2/6/19; Media Matters, 1/29/19, 1/30/19, 1/31/19]
In reality, Democratic lawmakers were attempting to protect abortion access at the state level, not to legalize “infanticide.” On January 22, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed the Reproductive Health Act, changing a pre-Roe v. Wade state law that criminalized abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy to allow abortions later in pregnancy “when the fetus is not viable or a woman’s health is at risk” with a doctor’s consent. Legislators in Virginia also introduced a bill in January that would protect abortion rights by eliminating some restrictions on abortion care, including one currently requiring three doctors to consent for a patient’s third-trimester abortion. On January 29, a video of the bill’s Democratic sponsor discussing the legislation went viral among right-wing media circles -- sparking widespread outrage among anti-abortion groups and media organizations. [New York magazine, 1/23/19; The Post-Standard, 1/22/19; Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1/30/19; Media Matters, 1/31/19]
Some media outlets accepted or uncritically repeated Trump’s lies. Those that didn’t were lambasted by anti-abortion groups. Following the State of the Union, media outlets had an opportunity to correct Trump’s anti-choice mischaracterizations and lies. Some media outlets instead chose to repeat anti-abortion talking points or right-wing misinformation from the address. Other outlets promoted Trump’s lies in headlines and on social media without providing necessary context or refutation. Meanwhile, anti-abortion groups attacked some of the outlets that did properly contextualize or debunk Trump’s anti-abortion misinformation. For example, Live Action called a fact check from NBC News “wholly inaccurate” and “false” because the group claimed that the measures would actually permit “abortion moments before birth for any reason” (NBC correctly said that they don't). Susan B. Anthony List’s Bill Valentine called a fact check by The Washington Post “incredibly lazy & inaccurate,” while the Pro-Life Action League criticized CNN for hosting “pro-abortion doctors” to discuss the reality of abortions later in pregnancy. In addition, Townhall published a piece after the State of the Union attacking five fact checks that it claimed “are accusing President Trump of omitting or distorting abortion information.” [Media Matters, 2/5/19, 2/6/19, 2/6/19; The Washington Post, 2/7/19; Twitter, 2/6/19, 2/5/19, 2/6/19, 2/6/19; Townhall, 2/8/19]
Here are some of the media outlets that properly fact-checked Trump’s claims about abortions later in pregnancy
NBC News accurately debunked Trump’s comments while the State of the Union was ongoing. NBC News’ Jane C. Timm wrote an accurate fact check in real time to debunk Trump’s misleading abortion comments during the State of the Union. It provided necessary context on the subject that Trump was incorrectly fearmongering about and gave the audience additional details about the reality of New York’s law. From NBC News:
[New York] recently passed a law loosening restrictions on abortions in the state, allowing abortions after 24 weeks if the fetus is not viable or when it’s necessary to protect the life of the mother. The president paints the picture of a healthy mother and child, but an abortion would not be legal in that scenario after 24 weeks in New York state.
Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pushed back at critics, noting that it is “just a mirror of the federal law” — the abortion rights enshrined by the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade.
What's more, abortions later in pregnancy are exceedingly rare; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that just 1.3 percent of abortions in the U.S. in 2015 took place in or after the 21st week. [NBC, 1/5/19]
The Washington Post’s live fact check also reported the inaccuracies in Trump’s comments on abortion during the State of the Union. During The Washington Post’s live fact check, journalist Meg Kelly also equipped readers to understand the New York and Virginia measures by debunking Trump’s lies on abortion while the State of the Union was ongoing. From The Washington Post:
The debate over abortion has moved to the forefront in recent weeks as many state legislatures where a majority of residents are in favor of abortion rights are moving to incorporate the Roe v. Wade standards into state law.
The legislation in New York would not have “allowed a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” It states a health care practitioner “may perform an abortion when, according to the practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”
The now-tabled bill in Virginia would have reduced the number of doctors required to agree that “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman” or “impair the mental or physical health of the woman” from three to one. It would have also removed the phrase “substantially and irremediably” from the section describing the required conditions for a woman to have an abortion. In other words, continuing pregnancy would no longer have to “substantially and irremediably impair” a woman’s physical or mental health, it would simply need to “impair” it. Lastly, the bill would have removed the 24 hour waiting period. [The Washington Post, 2/5/19]
After the State of the Union, Self magazine published a detailed and accurate piece debunking Trump’s abortion lies from the address. After the State of the Union, Self magazine’s Sarah Jacob provided an in-depth debunk of Trump’s inaccurate abortion comments. Beyond supplying readers with accurate data about the specific state measures, Jacob also spoke to abortion providers such as Dr. Willie Parker to help readers better understand the real experiences of people who have abortions later in pregnancy. From Self magazine:
It's not exactly clear what Trump means here by "late-term abortions," as it's more of an arbitrary political phrase than a medical distinction. It's possible that he meant after 20 weeks, but as we've noted, only a very small percentage of abortions occur after this point.
"Talking about third-trimester abortions in the way that the president talked about it last night is tantamount to putting out a fire that’s not burning," Willie J. Parker, M.D., board chair of Physicians for Reproductive Health, tells SELF.
When abortions do occur after 20 weeks, they are often due to health issues affecting the parent and/or fetus, which may not be detectable until later in a pregnancy, Dr. Parker says. Laws banning these procedures would make it even harder for these patients to get the care that their providers have deemed necessary.
These issues might include severe abnormalities, like a fetus that only has two heart chambers instead of four or that hasn't developed functional lungs—issues that prevent the fetus from being viable. In those cases, Dr. Parker says, it's crucial that parents still have the option to discuss it with their doctor. "For parents to reserve the right, in consultation with their health care provider, to decide to compassionately end a pregnancy—even if it gets to the third trimester—to avoid the inevitable suffering should birth occur is a component that's often lost," he says. The idea that every pregnancy goes totally normally, that every pregnancy that gets to the third trimester is on an inevitable "path to a life of health, wealth, comfort, and privilege is a fallacy," he adds. [Self magazine, 2/6/19]
Rewire.News published a piece written by someone who had an abortion later in pregnancy -- highlighting the realities of the experience. Rewire.News put Trump’s inaccurate comments about abortions later in pregnancy in context by allowing T.S. Mendola, who had undergone an abortion in the third trimester, to write about the specifics of her experience. From Rewire.News:
It’s a hell of a thing to hear your president call you a murderer.
I have had a third-trimester abortion—in other words, an abortion after the 28th gestational week of pregnancy—and have gone on to speak about it under my own name. To my knowledge, there are only two other women who have done so in the United States. Behind us are hundreds of others across the years who cannot speak out because of stigma in their communities, because of overwhelming grief and trauma, because of shame, because of fear. In the year since my story first came out, I have (among other things) been told my uterus should be forcibly removed so I can’t have more children. I have been called a bloodthirsty murderer who only wanted a “perfect” child.
When President Trump talks about ripping “a baby from the mother’s womb moments before birth,” we are whom he is referencing. (As this apparently has to be said, no, babies are never aborted “moments before birth,” but yes, abortions in months seven and eight do, rarely, happen.) And a year and a half after my abortion, after listening to woman after woman unburden their hearts in the relative safety of private support groups, I still do not know how to shove the tangled realities of our stories into a similarly pithy soundbite. Life and love in extremis do not lend themselves to the slogan, to the vulgar cheer of the crowd. All I have is the truth, as much of it as I can hold in my hands. And the truth is that as much as I still hurt, in the quiet everyday moments, as much as I miss the child whose face I never saw, I can find in myself no regret, no shame, and no fear. [Rewire.News, 2/6/19]
Beyond publishing a personal testimony, Rewire.News also reported on how Trump’s inflammatory abortion comments could provoke harassment of abortion providers. In addition to Mendola’s personal story about having an abortion later in pregnancy, Rewire.News also published additional pieces adding further context to Trump’s comments. Rewire.News’ Katelyn Burns spoke to Katherine Ragsdale, the interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, about how Trump’s comments could affect abortion providers. From Rewire.News:
Others expressed concern for the physical safety of reproductive health providers amid the mounting violent rhetoric from the anti-choice movement. “[T]he inflammatory rhetoric itself jeopardizes the safety of health care providers,” said Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, in a statement Tuesday night. “This demonization, by inciting violence, attempts to scare health care practitioners away from providing the care their patients need. This most-recent campaign of inflammatory rhetoric and blatant misinformation has already led to our receiving multiple calls from abortion providers concerned for their safety. Anti-abortion extremists feel emboldened when they see elected officials spreading their propaganda.” [Rewire.News, 2/6/19]
Rewire.News also explained that people of color and low-income individuals would be most impacted by policies restricting access to abortion later in pregnancy. Rewire.News’ Kimya Forouzan noted that arguments about abortion access have “frequently failed to mention the disproportionate impact of abortion restrictions on people of color and people with lower incomes.” Forouzan reported that these communities face particular difficulties from restrictions on abortions later in pregnancy. From Rewire.News:
Abortion has been a point of political discussions—ones often rife with fearmongering and scientific inaccuracy—in the United States since before the Roe v. Wade ruling. But arguments surrounding it have frequently failed to mention the disproportionate impact of abortion restrictions on people of color and people with lower incomes.
Overall, people of color seek abortion at higher rates than white people. And logistical barriers often prevent those who are already underserved from obtaining the care they need. Due to the Hyde Amendment, a yearly rider on the Congressional appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, federal money cannot be used for abortion care, except for a few narrow exceptions. As a result, people with low incomes who use Medicaid must find their own funding for their care, while already possibly struggling to make ends meet. People of color also use Medicaid at higher rates than white people. Significant time can pass between deciding to obtain an abortion and acquiring the necessary funding through personal networks or through abortion funds.
In addition to securing funding for the actual procedure, patients must also coordinate the logistics and costs of traveling for care, complying with any applicable waiting periods (such as those in question in Virginia) or parental involvement requirements, and securing time off from work and child care. People of color and people with low incomes already face greater obstacles to reliable, affordable child care. They also face wage disparities and are disproportionately affected by parental involvement laws. While many people who seek abortions have to coordinate these aspects of their lives given these restrictions, people of color and people with low incomes often face greater obstacles and repercussions in doing so.
These barriers build on each other, and each building block weighs heavier on people of color and people with low incomes. As the clock ticks on the pregnancy, the patient may have to travel even farther to find a provider who offers later abortions. These obstacles exponentially grow at every turn. [Rewire.News, 2/6/19]
CNN spoke to doctors about the medical necessity of abortions that take place later in pregnancy. Following Trump’s State of the Union address, CNN spoke to two doctors -- Barbara Levy, vice president of health policy at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and Jennifer Conti, a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health. They explained that Trump’s comments didn’t reflect the reality of how providers and patients actually experience or provide abortions later in pregnancy. By relying on medical experts to discuss the topic, CNN provided readers with access to expert commentary to help refute to the unfounded claims the president repeated from right-wing media. From CNN:
CNN: What does the phrase "late-term abortion" mean to you?
Dr. Barbara Levy: The phrase "late-term abortion" is medically inaccurate and has no clinical meaning. In science and medicine, it's essential to use language precisely.
Dr. Jennifer Conti: "Late term" is an invention of anti-abortion extremists to confuse, mislead and increase stigma. The appropriate language is "abortions later in pregnancy."
CNN: Can you explain why abortions happen later in a pregnancy?
Conti: There are many reasons why women may need to access abortion later in pregnancy, including maternal health endangerment, diagnosis of fetal abnormalities or restrictive laws delaying earlier access to abortion care. Those exceptionally rare cases that happen after 24 weeks are often because a fetus has a condition that cannot be treated and will never be able to survive -- regardless of the gestational age or trimester.
It's this exact reason that it's nonsensical to legislate these cases: Nobody arrives at the decision to have an abortion after 24 weeks carelessly. Rather, it's the rare case of rapidly decompensating maternal heart disease or a delayed diagnosis of anencephaly, where the fetus forms without a complete brain or skull, that bring people to these decisions.
CNN: Can any woman simply choose to have an abortion late in her pregnancy?
Levy: Abortion later in pregnancy is a very complex decision and, often, a very emotional one. We know that women who make the decision to have an abortion do so in a considered, deliberate fashion. This is especially true for women who have abortions later in pregnancy who are often facing devastating fetal diagnoses or life-threatening conditions that may introduce a multitude of clinical considerations into their decision-making.
Moreover, the ob-gyns who provide later in pregnancy abortion care have very specific training both in the technical procedure, as well as ethical decision-making in complex clinical circumstances.
CNN: What do you wish people would think about when discussing this hot-button subject?
Levy: Abortion later in pregnancy is not used as an alternative to delivering healthy women's full-term, viable pregnancies. Additionally, it's callous to suggest that healthy women with viable pregnancies at term abruptly change their minds and seek abortion care as the solution. [CNN, 2/6/19]
Following the State of the Union, Jezebel published an account from an abortion provider talking about the realities of abortions later in pregnancy. Dr. Meera Shah, the associate medical director of Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic in New York and a fellow with the Physicians for Reproductive Health, wrote an article for Jezebel about how New York’s Reproductive Health Act (RHA) will help her patients. Shah’s account was a direct contrast to Trump’s inaccurate characterization of the law, and provided readers with the necessary information to better understand the harmful impact of the previous New York law. From Jezebel:
What Trump said grossly mischaracterized what the RHA does. Passed on the 46th anniversary of Roe v.Wade, almost 10 years after it was first introduced, the RHA ended an almost 50-year history of the state including abortion in its criminal code, rather than treating it as a medical procedure. The vast majority of abortions occur in the first trimester, prior to 12 weeks, and about one in four American women will have an abortion in her lifetime.
The RHA now ensures that people in New York will have their constitutional right to an abortion; that includes the right to abortion after the 24th week in pregnancy if the pregnant person’s life or health is threatened by the pregnancy, or if the fetus has a condition incompatible with life. Prior to this legislation, I have had patients find out about a fetal anomaly who then had to travel long distances to other states to get the care they needed. Abortion later in pregnancy is not what patients anticipate for themselves; it’s not how they see their pregnancies unfolding. I had one patient who couldn’t afford to travel outside of the state and so she continued the pregnancy and the baby died shortly after birth due to a brain malformation. Years later, she is unable to tell her story without tears.
Abortion later in pregnancy is not common, and this law will not make it more common—just more accessible. The RHA does not mean that abortion after 24 weeks is permissible for any reason, despite how some conservative lawmakers have characterized the legislation. The circumstances that lead to late abortion are unique are often times very difficult for my patients. My job is to treat them with compassion. We should all treat patients like this with compassion instead of criminalizing them.
And finally, something that hasn’t received as much attention as it should, is that the RHA removed New York’s antiquated law that makes it a crime to self-manage an abortion. New York was one of only seven remaining states that had such laws on the books, and in at least one of those states, a court recently found that law unconstitutional. Removing those laws in New York ensures that people who take steps to end their own pregnancies will not be isolated from any follow-up care for fear of being arrested. [Jezebel, 2/6/19]