The Pseudoscience That Could Kill Women

Two women from Texas talk to each other about traveling to Oklahoma as they recover from their abortions at the Trust Women clinic in Oklahoma City. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

Here is a scientific fact: Ectopic pregnancies are not viable. They occur when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, which dooms the pregnancy and, without treatment, can doom a woman, too. Ectopic pregnancies can lead to hemorrhage and are the leading cause of death for women in the first trimester of pregnancy. Here’s another fact: There is one way to save a woman from an ectopic pregnancy, and that is through termination — an abortion.

A proposed Missouri bill ignores these facts outright. H.B. 2810 would make it a felony, punishable by ten-years-to-life in prison, to perform an abortion after ten weeks of pregnancy, including in cases of ectopic pregnancy, the Springfield News-Leader reports. The bill’s architect, state representative Brian Seitz, offered a familiar justification for his work. “This bill is about protecting life,” he told the newspaper. In a confusing email to Bloomberg News, Seitz claimed that his bill had been misrepresented by critics and that it would do nothing “to curtail that LEGAL activity, as it can present a clear and present danger to the mother.” Perhaps Seitz does not understand that abortion is both a legal activity and the cure for ectopic pregnancies. Or perhaps he does know but simply doesn’t care about the facts. In either case, he would hardly be the first anti-abortion conservative to potentially put women at risk through his disregard for basic medical science. The anti-abortion movement turns to such pseudoscience to conceal its hostility for abortion-seeking women.

For proof, examine the movement’s record. Anti-abortion activists commonly make a variety of medical and scientific claims about contraception and abortion that have no evidential basis. They have insisted that abortion leads to cancer, infertility, and psychological disorders. The owners of Hobby Lobby believed that intrauterine devices, or IUDs, and the Plan B pill cause abortions. In Ohio, a previously proposed bill “would have prohibited insurers from covering abortion services but provided an exception for doctors to ‘reimplant’ an ectopic pregnancy into a woman’s uterus,” Bloomberg News reports, which is impossible. Current bills in Ohio and South Carolina would require doctors to tell patients who receive medication abortions that the procedure can be halted or reversed. A dozen other states have already passed similar laws, even though the claim they advance is based on an unproven, potentially dangerous treatment that isn’t endorsed by the medical community.

The truth, of course, is that abortion is safe. IUDs and the Plan B pill prevent pregnancy, and there’s no reliable way to “reverse” a medication abortion. Most women who have an abortion say they don’t regret it, data that undermines a key anti-abortion claim. Were abortion tantamount to infanticide, we might expect the average woman to feel something akin to shame, even grief, yet many report a sense of relief. The movement not only misunderstands medical science, it misunderstands women.

Take, for example, a recent NPR story documenting the case of a Texas woman who experienced an early stillbirth. At high risk for sepsis, a deadly blood infection, the woman needed a termination but could not procure one in Texas because of the state’s restrictive new abortion laws. She had to take a flight to the nearest state that would provide the procedure. “I had to come up with a game plan with my OB in case I went into labor on the flight. And I made sure that I bought us front-row seats so I could be close to the bathroom in case it happened. And I’m like, no one should ever have to do that,” the woman, Anna, said. Contacted for comment, John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life, had little to say. The case was “horrific,” he admitted, but said, “Even in the worst circumstances, another act of violence on an innocent victim is not the best solution that we have.” That attitude will eventually kill a woman, as it did in Ireland with the case of Savita Halappanavar. The 31 year-old dentist died in 2012 when she could not obtain a medically necessary abortion in the country. Irish voters later repealed the country’s restrictive anti-abortion amendment by referendum in 2018.

Faced with such facts, which don’t fit their version of reality, anti-abortion activists resort to fiction. They can do little else to defend their position, which is metaphysical at its heart. This is a debate over personhood, which is difficult if not impossible to resolve in a scientific sense: Medical experts cannot explain when “ensoulment” might take place. Where philosophical persuasion fails, pseudoscience fills the gap. Activists can then wholly inhabit the reality they prefer and ignore facts that are inconvenient, a tendency that nurtures extremism.

The Missouri bill is an exceptional case, one example of an anti-abortion politician gone rogue. The state’s senate majority leader, another Republican, has said the bill is “DOA” there in its current form. Seitz, meanwhile, said he intends to introduce a clarifying amendment to the bill, though it’s hard to imagine exactly how this would work. For now, the text speaks for itself, as does the broader legislative push to which it belongs. Missouri already has a law in place that would automatically ban abortion if Roe v. Wade falls in the Supreme Court this year — the outcome the movement has sought for so many decades. The world the right wing wants is a world without abortion, and that is a world in which women still die, in back alleys and in hospitals.

The Anti-Abortion Movement’s Deadly Pseudoscience