Must-read stories debunking right-wing media's attacks on later abortions
Conservatives use misinformation and stigma to vilify people who have abortions later in pregnancy
Research ››› ››› CHENAY ARBERRY
Since the introduction of recent measures to protect abortion rights in several states, right-wing media have leveraged anti-choice misinformation to not only claim that abortions later in pregnancy are never necessary but to also vilify and shame people who have them. But reading the personal accounts from later abortion patients emphasizes the reality of their different experiences, debunking harmful conservative tropes depicting later abortions as shameful or medically unnecessary. Here are just a few examples of how right-wing media amplifies anti-choice talking points to stigmatize later abortions, and several must-read accounts from actual abortion patients to correct the record.
Right-wing media drummed up controversy about later abortions based on anti-choice misinformation
Right-wing media deployed anti-abortion lies and misinformation to vilify and shame individuals who have had later abortions. President Donald Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address contained a number of erroneous right-wing media talking points about later abortions. During the 2019 Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump and other speakers, such as former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, invoked inaccurate characterizations of later abortion, alleging that the procedure involved giving birth to a child and then killing it. These talking points all echoed right-wing media’s relentless stream of misinformation about later abortions -- including sensationalized and false claims that Democrats support “infanticide” or “abortion up to birth.” [CNN, 2/6/19; HuffPost, 2/28/19; Media Matters, 3/5/19, 1/31/19]
Beyond mischaracterizing later abortion procedures, right-wing and anti-abortion media also asserted that such procedures are never medically necessary. In addition to shaming patients who have had abortions later in pregnancy, right-wing and anti-abortion media outlets have inaccurately asserted that such procedures are never medically necessary. In February, The Federalist published an article alleging that “there is no situation in which late abortion is the only, or even the best, solution to a maternal or fetal health crisis.” In another example, the Washington Examiner published an article co-authored by Lila Rose, founder of the anti-abortion group Live Action, in which she claimed that “it is never medically necessary to intentionally kill an unborn child in an abortion in order to save the life of its mother.” Anti-choice website LifeSiteNews also promoted misinformation about the necessity of later abortions in a March 6 article in which anti-abortion doctors asserted that such procedures were never medically necessary to save a patient’s life. [The Federalist, 2/26/19, Washington Examiner, 2/26/19, LifeSiteNews, 3/6/19]
In reality, later abortions happened due to medical necessity or the impact of “structural and socioeconomic reasons.” In a March 11 report for Vox, reporter Anna North interviewed Dr. Kristyn Brandi, “a New Jersey OB-GYN with fellowship training in family planning, and a board member of Physicians for Reproductive Health.” As Brandi explained, “when we’re talking about these abortions later in pregnancy, this is about 1 percent of all abortion care,” but patients often seek later abortions because of “some type of medical complication or their fetus was diagnosed with some type of genetic abnormality that makes their quality of life after they deliver really poor.” Brandi also noted that in other instances, “structural and socioeconomic reasons” force people to access abortion care later in pregnancy than they intended due to “so many different types of barriers that are created for health care in general, but specifically abortion care.” [Vox, 3/11/19]
Media outlets highlighted personal stories to challenge abortion stigma, combat the vilification of having an abortion, and debunk right-wing misinformation
“We are not monsters,” said patients and families as they shared later abortion stories to challenge misconceptions and defend themselves against right-wing attacks. Erika Christensen and her husband, Garin Marschall, have both shared their later abortion story to combat abortion stigma and right-wing misinformation. Christensen originally shared her experience having a medically necessary abortion at 32 weeks in an interview with Jezebel in 2016, while Marschall shared his perspective in an op-ed for The Hill in January 2019. Christensen and Marschall signed an open letter from later abortion patients and their families defending themselves against right-wing media’s characterizations, stating “we are not monsters” for having an abortion later in pregnancy. The letter also implores others “to start listening to people with first-hand experience instead of talking heads, priests, and politicians,” affirming the importance of listening to the experience of those who have actually had abortions -- not the sensationalized rhetoric from right-wing media figures. From the letter:
The stories we hear being told about later abortion in this national discussion are not our stories. They do not reflect our choices or experiences. These hypothetical patients don’t sound like us or the other patients we know. The barbarous, unethical doctors in these scenarios don’t sound like the people who gave us compassionate care.
The decision to terminate a pregnancy is never a political one, it is a personal one. Later abortions stories are often ones of tragedy and loss. For others, they are stories of relief. They feature struggles with hope, women betrayed by their bodies and the incredible complexity of pregnancy. Many stories are ones of overcoming the many obstacles and restriction our states have placed on these procedures.
We are not monsters. We are your family, your neighbors, someone you love. We are you, just in different circumstances. Due to ignorance, many of us may not have supported later abortion access before facing a crisis ourselves, accepting restrictions on healthcare we never imagined needing. Now we recognize that our laws may not be able to draw neat lines around each of our stories, allowing these procedures in certain, hyper-specific circumstances and not in others, because we know people will be left outside those lines. As people privileged enough to speak up, that is unacceptable to us.
We’ll tell you our stories if you can muster the compassion necessary to hear them. We understand that talking about later abortion can be uncomfortable. It requires us confronting the terrible reality that pregnancy, even a wanted one, is not always a blessing. It means we have to consider decisions being made with imperfect information. When we talk about later abortion, concepts we thought were simple become complicated.
With the manufactured crisis over later abortion, opportunistic politicians are seeking to exploit an already stigmatized, marginalized group of people. Our hope is that this crusade may yet lead somewhere constructive, that as ideologues turn the country’s attention to abortions that happen later in pregnancy, there may be space for education and empathy.
This is only possible if it includes the stories of real patients. And there is no good faith effort at a conversation on later abortion that does not include us. [Open letter by Abortion patients, accessed 3/5/19; The Hill, 1/30/18; Jezebel, 6/15/16]
A later abortion was medically necessary to save Susan’s life. Susan, who asked CNN not to use her last name, shared her later abortion story with the outlet in February 2019, after the passage of New York’s Reproductive Health Act triggered an onslaught of right-wing media criticism. After gaining 11 pounds in one week, Susan became concerned about her pregnancy. She soon discovered that her “protein levels were dangerously high,” leading doctors to discover that she had severe preeclampsia and was on the threshold of suffering a stroke. She described her condition as “being poisoned by pregnancy” and said doctors determined that the only way to save her life was “to not be pregnant.” From CNN:
Susan flipped open her "What to Expect When You're Expecting" book and turned to the section that outlined when to call a doctor. Her kind of swelling and sudden weight gain -- she'd put on 11 pounds in one week -- made the list.
Her blood pressure "was off the charts," Susan remembers 30 years later. Her husband dialed the obstetrician, who asked whether he had any urine testing strips handy. He did, and they showed that Susan's protein levels were dangerously high, indicating a problem with her kidneys.
“Get over to the hospital right away," the obstetrician ordered.
She was at 24 weeks and had severe preeclampsia. Doctors said she was on the verge of having a stroke.
"It's like you're being poisoned by pregnancy," she said, explaining her condition, "And the only way to cure it is to not be pregnant."
The fetus was behind in its development and not where it should be at 24 weeks.
It "needs at least two weeks to be even minimally viable, and you just don't have two weeks," the doctors told her. "You don't have two days."
Her abortion was a necessity and felt like "such a no-choice choice," said Susan, 59, who later had two daughters.
It wasn't what she wanted. It was what she needed to live. [CNN, 2/25/19]
Woman who had a later abortion shared her story to rebut Trump and right-wing media’s inaccurate characterizations of abortion patients and procedures. In an article for HuffPost, Jennifer Gorman shared her later abortion story as a means of combating inaccurate tropes promoted by Trump and right-wing media. At Gorman’s 21-week ultrasound, she learned of the “severe developmental abnormality” that had occurred during her pregnancy, making it “unlikely that our baby would survive.” After witnessing Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address, which was filled with sensationalized language attacking people who have later abortions, Gorman decided to share her story so that “a face, a name, and a story” would be attached to Trump’s accusations. From HuffPost:
Once seated around a small round table, the doctor wasted no time getting to the point. She informed us that our baby had a severe developmental abnormality, Spina Bifida, in the cervical region of the spine. Her spinal cord was completely exposed just below her skull. I remember immediately starting to cry and my ears started to ring so loudly I could barely hear her as she continued to speak. I struggled to listen as she explained in detail what we were facing.
The doctor told us that it was unlikely that our baby would survive and should she make it to delivery and live, she would be paralyzed from the neck down. She would be confined to a wheelchair and would likely be permanently attached to a colostomy bag and feeding tube; she would be profoundly mentally disabled. The doctor advised us that our best course of action, in her medical opinion, was a therapeutic abortion, and with heavy hearts we agreed.
Deciding to undergo a “late-term abortion” is something I never thought I would have to do, and it’s something I would never wish upon anyone else. It is something I think about every day of my life, and I can’t imagine ever not thinking about it. But, as devastating as making that decision was ― and as terrifying and heart-wrenching as actually going through the experience was ― I am grateful I live in a country where, at least for now, a “late-term abortion” was a legal option for me.
I am not in the habit of writing about my personal life on social media and especially not on a hugely-read publication like HuffPost. While I’ve often made my opinion known on the topic of abortion in the past, I’ve avoided the personal reasons for my belief. Today I decided to share my story because the next time the president of the United States, a politician, a talking head on TV, a religious leader, your friends or family, or yourself either alludes to or overtly calls women like me at best heartless or at worst murderers, I would like you to have a face, a name, and a story attached to that accusation. Perhaps armed with that knowledge, you’ll think twice before agreeing with them. [HuffPost, 2/7/19]
In opposition to right-wing media depictions, one woman explained her “experience of later abortion doesn’t match the language used to describe it.” In February, Missy Kurzweil shared her story of having an abortion at 21 weeks with Jezebel. Kurzweil and her husband decided to have an abortion after they were informed by doctors that a part of their child’s brain was missing. According to Kurzweil, “ending my pregnancy was the most selfless act of love I have ever committed,” and her experience did not “match the language used to describe it” in right-wing media. From Jezebel:
What the doctor said was a blur, but went something like this: The pictures revealed a part of our baby’s brain was missing… “agenesis” of something called the “corpus callosum” which connects the right and left hemispheres… he could likely survive without it, but his quality of life was a serious question… this could be a sign of other complications… an MRI would give us more information. Then quietly, carefully, she asked: Had we ever discussed the possibility of termination in a worst-case scenario?
Until New York passed the Reproductive Health Act in January, abortion was only legal for any reason up to 24 weeks. After that, it can be done only if the baby’s or mother’s life is at risk. And even then, terminating a pregnancy is much more complicated. With less than two weeks until the cut-off, my pregnancy became a grimly ticking clock.
No one “wants” a later abortion. Few people get them (only one percent of abortions happen after 21 weeks), and nearly all the parents who do are grappling with devastating diagnoses like mine, or worse. I have spoken to many of these women in a private support group. Like me, they would give anything to exchange their abortion for a healthy, living child. The best choice we had was ending our pregnancies to ease our children’s suffering, or for some women, to save their own lives.
I think that’s why my mind goes back to the question: When does parenthood begin? We accept that a parent decides what’s best for his or her child, but we assume that parenthood begins when a child is born, leaving pregnant women and their partners vulnerable to everyone else’s judgment.
I learned only enough this year to know that the experience of later abortion doesn’t match the language used to describe it. Ending my pregnancy was the most selfless act of love I have ever committed. [Jezebel, 2/21/19]
Another woman refused to let right-wing media stigmatize her later abortion, saying, “President Trump and pro-lifers have no right to call me a murderer.” In a February article for Slate, Margot Finn shared her experience of having a later abortion at 29 weeks. Finn explained that she made the decision after doctors discovered her baby had developed a brain abnormality that “would have killed her.” Beyond calling out Trump’s rhetoric about people who have later abortions, Finn also affirmed how crucial it is to frame later abortion stories around the experience of those who have had them -- not the sensationalized misinformation coming from right-wing media. From Slate:
In December 2014, I had an abortion at 29 weeks, after my first baby was diagnosed with a brain abnormality called lissencephaly. The early diagnosis—lissencephaly is sometimes not diagnosed until after birth—meant her case was severe and her prognosis was grim: We could expect her to live for two to six years while suffering from frequent respiratory infections and intermittently choking on her own saliva. Her cognitive development would be arrested or even reversed by painful seizures. She might have been able to smile socially and/or track motion with her eyes, but maybe not. Eventually, one of the bouts of pneumonia or choking episodes or complications from one of the surgeries needed to sustain basic life functions would have killed her.
But this week is different. The backlash against New York state enacting the Reproductive Health Act and Virginia Democrat Kathy Tran introducing a bill to loosen restrictions on third-trimester abortions in her state has even veteran grievers reeling. To have the nation recoil in disgust and horror at what was our lives has a lot of us feeling tense and exhausted. And then our president called us murderers in his State of the Union address and promised to make what many of us did illegal. Half of his audience—our elected representatives—stood and applauded that line. We watched in horror, or didn’t in protest, but there’s no escaping the stigma being broadcast from the nation’s highest office. We came to the group and raged and cried and told each other he has no idea what he’s talking about. He doesn’t, but it still hurts.
For some newly grieving parents in deeply anti-choice communities, it’s been cataclysmic, turning their social media feeds—the very conduits they need to feel connected to other people—into landmines of painful judgment. Even though most of our members did not have late-term procedures, the vast majority of late-term procedures are medically indicated, so the condemnations feel especially personal. It feels like they’re talking about all of us.
At the same time, it feels like they are not actually talking about us at all. Just like President Donald Trump ranting about babies being ripped from their mother’s bodies at nine months in the third presidential debate, people who condemn this law often have no apparent familiarity with the circumstances that cause people to seek abortions after 24 weeks. They assume the babies aborted after this point would otherwise be healthy and the only reason to end any pregnancy is because you were careless with sex. They seem to assume ending your pregnancy after 24 weeks is something you do because you find pregnancy suddenly inconvenient.
I’ve never encountered a single living example of the theorized monster mother who would decide at 24-plus weeks of pregnancy that she simply doesn’t want a seemingly healthy baby, and she doesn’t want it enough that she will find a doctor who will stop its heart and induce labor so she can push a dead baby out of her body. That doesn’t mean those people don’t exist. But it’s hard to believe that most people would go through the horror of a late-term abortion unless they were being held hostage by the threat of something even worse. That might not always be a horrifying health diagnosis for the child—it could involve mental illness or drug addiction or traumatic rape or other types of abuse. But no one is so desperate to get an abortion after 24 weeks that they’re willing to go through what it involves and simultaneously so feckless they’re willing to end a pregnancy for no reason whatsoever.
I wish people who react in outrage to late-term abortion, who question how it’s allowed or why it’s necessary, would pause and listen to some of the answers those of us who have had late-term abortions have provided. We do not owe it to anyone to tell our stories, but many of us have offered them up all the same. We tell them to honor our babies and to try to smooth the path for all the families to come. We expose ourselves to your scrutiny and judgment for the same reason we released our babies from suffering: Because our pain is eclipsed only by our love. [Slate, 2/7/19]
Woman shared her later abortion experience to refute right-wing misinformation and center patient stories in media conversation. Kate Carson shared her story of having an abortion later in pregnancy on NPR’s 1A radio program in April 2019 to center stories like hers in media conversations about abortion, despite continued sensationalizing by Trump and right-wing media. At Carson’s 36-week ultrasound, doctors discovered her baby had developed severe brain abnormalities. On 1A, she explained that this experience changed her perspective on abortions later in pregnancy, enabling her “to realize people were talking about this without knowing anything, to see that I had once been a person who also knew nothing, but now knew a lot because I had been through it.” Carson asserted the importance of emphasizing real later abortion stories in public conversations, and not to repeat right-wing media’s erroneous characterizations of the experience. From NPR’s 1A:
Well, this was a planned pregnancy. A hard-planned and hard-earned pregnancy of a loved and wanted daughter. Her name was Laurel. Though the doctors said my pregnancy was healthy and all signs pointed to a healthy pregnancy, when I received an ultrasound in my 35th week of pregnancy, the doctors found that my daughter’s brain was riddled with holes. After further investigation, we were consulted by a neurologist who read the MRI of my daughter and he told us her prognosis. Laurel was not expected to ever talk, walk, hold her head up, or swallow.
And I remember trying to absorb what he was telling me and it was so many “can’ts,” and I just wanted to picture of how she would be, what she would do, and I was grasping. I said, “What will my daughter be able to do? What do babies like mine do? Do they just sleep all the time?” And I remember his face, he winced and he said very slowly, “Children like yours are not often comfortable enough to sleep.” And it was really that that compelled my husband and I to seek abortion care.
We were aligned in the belief that if we had to choose just one gift to give our daughter between the two beautiful and precious gifts of peace and life that for us, and our values, and our family, we wanted to give our daughter peace.
I had an abortion when I was eight months pregnant. How do I hold that? Who can I tell that? It’s very heavy. It was an election year and at the time, I thought the rhetoric was really bad. I’ve learned that it can get a lot worse. To realize people were talking about this without knowing anything, to see that I had once been a person who also knew nothing, but now knew a lot because I had been through it. It was very, very difficult.
I think I wish that people knew how badly I want just to be a bereaved mother. And I don’t think you’ll ever hear anyone else say, “I wish I were a bereaved mother,” but that I deeply love my child, I miss her, and I do this, I keep showing up and telling my story because it is so easy for people to talk about it without knowing about it. It is hard to learn about this, but I live with it every day. And that when you hear, especially people in positions of power talk about this, know that they’re doing it to make you angry. When I tell people my story, they are so compassionate and so loving regardless of politics because they see me as a mother and they see my daughter as my baby and they care. When you hear politicians frapping up violent imagery, they are trying to dampen that spirit. And I just would like everyone to tap in to their deepest, truest, most loving self when dealing with controversial issues because it’s not just an issue. It’s families like mine and people like me. [NPR, 1A, 4/4/19]
Update (4/11/19): This piece has been updated with an additional example.