clock menu more-arrow no yes

The biggest myth about abortion that you probably believe is true

It seems nothing will revive the debate over abortion quite like an election year.

In 2012, former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's claims of "legitimate rape" prompted women to have to to explain how pregnancy works. This election, Carly Fiorina blasted fetus execution videos that don't exist, Chris Christie called abortion murder, and providers had to dispel rumors that they all roll up to work in Lamborghinis.

Then there was the brouhaha over the heavily edited Planned Parenthood videos created by the Center for Medical Progress (which ultimately lead to its leaders' indictments), and Donald Trump decided how he feels about abortion in the same manner most people choose a froyo flavor. The previously pro-choice Trump recently said women who get abortions should be "punished," and then expressed five different stances on abortion in three days, only to land on a position that pretty much reaffirms his initial comment as being "excellent."

There's no doubt abortion is up for debate — not only among the candidates, but also among everyday voters.


Although it's is a divisive topic, what unites people on both sides of the debate is how clueless they are about the specifics of abortion. Vox's Sarah Kliff reported earlier this year that most Americans, regardless of their gender or political leanings, believe the medical procedure is rarer and more dangerous than it really is.

Approximately 61 percent of the 1,060 people polled by Vox and PerryUndem underestimated the prevalence of abortion. And a majority said abortion is "less safe" or "about as safe" for a woman as giving birth — in reality, giving birth leads to many more complications. In fact, for every 100,000 live births in the US, nearly nine women died, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Per every 100,000 abortions, 0.6 women died, according to the same study.

The anti-abortion movement has capitalized on this dearth of knowledge about abortion to spread the myth that the procedure is inherently dangerous. In reality, data shows abortion is medically safer than getting a colonoscopy or getting your wisdom teeth removed — where are the activists lining up at the Supreme Court demanding we regulate the size of dentists' hallways? Researchers from Princeton University actually called continuing pregnancy "the most common adverse outcome" of abortion.

As a person who has reported on this issue, I will admit even I didn't know those facts. So why is there so much confusion?

Dr. Rachael Phelps from Planned Parenthood of Central & Western New York said she views the stigma around abortion as the root of the knowledge gap.

"There's a tremendous amount of myths out there about abortion. I think some of that is because of the vacuum of people having honest conversations about abortion," she told Vox. Phelps says this is no accident. "A lot of that is intentional because we know there are a lot of people who think abortion is wrong and don't want women to have access to them, and so they say all of things to scare women away from abortion, to deter them from making a choice that is best for them."

The abortion knowledge gap has created the perfect breeding ground for anti-choice legislation focused on "safety." In fact, Phelps noted, Texas's controversial HB2 law was supposedly written to make abortion facilities safer, but it's only led to clinics being forced to shut down since they fail to meet the law's new standards.

Regardless of whether the Supreme Court upholds HB2, restricting access is a winning strategy for the pro-life movement. Nearly 400 bills to restrict abortion access were introduced last year on the state level, and most rural counties in the US don't have an abortion clinic. More of these laws have been introduced over the last five years than over the past 15 years. As time goes on, abortion access isn't improving, it's getting worse.

But the safety concerns, like the ones instituted in Texas, seem to double-down on something abortion providers inherently do. Doctors who perform abortions, Phelps says, already put women's safety as a top priority.

"For us, the most important thing is that women are healthy," she said. "Safety is the top priority of every abortion provider." And they would rather spend their limited time on making the procedure safer — and preventing it from happening in the first place, which is what Phelps said she spends the majority of her time at work doing.

There are, after all, far more effective ways to actually improve women's health, like investing in universal health care, contraception, or prenatal care. The US has been described as one of the worst places to be a mother, with a maternal mortality rate that is simply abysmal compared to other developed nations. And shockingly, the mortality rate is getting worse, not better. Perhaps if protestors who claim to be advocating for women's health focused their efforts on demanding better services for mothers, the US could become a safer haven for all women.

Correction: The original piece cited the wrong polling organization involved in the Vox.com poll on abortion knowledge.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.