It’s Not Just Lawmakers—a Lot of People Don’t Know What Abortion Is

“Plan B is to get rid of a baby," one respondent said in a new study gauging American's perceptions of abortion. It’s not!

It’s Not Just Lawmakers—a Lot of People Don’t Know What Abortion Is
Photo:Francois Picard (Getty Images)

It goes without saying that lawmakers responsible for abortion bans in states across the country know astonishingly little about pregnancy and reproduction. They’ve passed bills requiring abortion seekers to learn pseudoscience methods to “reverse” abortion pills, equating abortion with regret, and, just a few years ago, an Ohio Republican touted a bill extending insurance coverage to a nonexistent treatment for ectopic pregnancies while banning coverage of abortion. (Ectopic pregnancies, which occur when the embryo implants outside the uterus and endangers the pregnant person’s life, are treated with abortion care.)

Lawmakers’ ignorance is especially dangerous at a time when misinformation about what is or isn’t a “medically necessary” abortion is putting women’s lives at risk. Meanwhile, Plan B is being inaccurate conflated with abortion, while Republicans are conspiring against contraception using the overturning of Roe v. Wade as a pretext.

As it turns out, the general population (and electorate) are fairly confused about what is or isn’t an abortion, too (which might contribute a teensy bit to how these idiots keep getting elected!). Per a new study by Guttmacher Institute published this week, 22% of about 2,000 survey participants regard emergency contraception, which prevents pregnancy in the first place, as abortion. A third equate miscarriage care with abortion, when these are two separate experiences. Researchers also found that some survey respondents automatically regard a pregnancy as a “baby”—the very line of thinking that can hold pregnant people criminally liable for what happens to their pregnancy.

“Plan B is to get rid of a baby. … That’s how I feel about it,” one survey respondent explained of their decision to classify plan B as “definitely an abortion.” Another respondent said they couldn’t distinguish emergency contraception from medication abortion at all.

Per the study, a strong majority of respondents agreed that “stillbirth, sick when pregnant, ectopic pregnancy, [and] miscarriage” aren’t abortions. (Though, abortion sometimes is the solution to such medical situations, whether you want to call the procedure an abortion or not.) Researchers also sought respondents’ views of more specific scenarios, like whether emergency contraception constitutes an abortion if the condom broke (15% saw this as an abortion, which is too many people!), or whether ending a pregnancy with fetal anomalies is an abortion if it was a wanted pregnancy (83% saw this as an abortion, which it is).

“Intention definitely played a very strong role in how our respondents thought through the different scenarios,” lead author Alicia VandeVusse told NPR on Tuesday. “When people were talking about taking emergency contraception the day after intercourse, we had folks who were saying, ‘Well, you know, they wanted to end their pregnancy, so it’s an abortion,’ even if they’re not pregnant.”

As the study’s authors point out, anti-abortion lawmakers rely on these convoluted understandings of abortion to stigmatize the full range of reproductive care as much as possible. “Policy restrictions on abortion, coupled with confusion about what constitutes an abortion, impact other aspects of pregnancy care, such as miscarriage management and ectopic pregnancy care,” the study notes, “by sowing confusion regarding the legal status of procedures and what activities may be criminalized.”

In regions where abortion is banned, access to miscarriage care and other pregnancy-related health services has also been sharply impacted due to shuttered clinics and hospital labor departments. Some health care providers say they fear even providing miscarriage care—which, often enough, means providing medication abortion to complete a miscarriage that’s in progress—will incur criminal charges, while patients have expressed hesitancy to even research their pregnancies online.

Some people have shared stories of being denied vital medications—like those that treat arthritis and debilitating headaches—because they are deemed potential “abortifacients” for people of “childbearing age.” As for the idea that emergency contraception is a form of abortion and should be restricted as such, Republicans—and certain Supreme Court justices, for that matter—have been pushing this baseless lie for years.

The erosion of our reproductive rights—to abortion, birth control, and really any measure of bodily autonomy—worsens with public confusion. And this public confusion, VandeVusse said, itself thrives on stigma that prevents education about pregnancy, abortion, and miscarriage: “We don’t speak openly about a lot of reproductive experiences,” she said. Ramped up state policing of pregnancy probably isn’t going to help with that.

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