A third of US state abortion materials are completely misleading women

Women seeking unbiased information may instead encounter advocacy.
Women seeking unbiased information may instead encounter advocacy.
Image: AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Women seeking abortions in many US states are getting widely inaccurate medical information from the materials they’re required to receive by state law, new research shows.

In at least 37 states, a woman considering an abortion must receive certain informational materials before the procedure can be performed. And in 29 states, those materials are authored by the states. A recent study by a team at Rutgers University (pdf) found that nearly a third—31%—of the medical information in state-authored booklets was either false or misleading.

Some of the informational booklets exaggerated the “baby-like” characteristics of embryos and fetuses, the researchers found, suggesting they can breathe, see, cry, or experience pain earlier than they can in reality—which could dissuade pregnant women from going through with the procedure.

The requirement to distribute these materials falls under ”informed consent,” or the process of getting permission before a medical procedure. Since 2010, the paper said, states have expanded their restrictions on abortion through informed-consent statutes and other measures. Nearly 66% of women seeking abortions are in states with informed-consent statutes, according to the researchers at Rutgers.

In some states, the medical inaccuracies were more common than in others. For example, more than 40% of the materials produced by Michigan, Kansas, and North Carolina were deemed medically inaccurate. Meanwhile, Alabama, Alaska, and Georgia had the lowest rate of inaccuracies of the states studied, with 18% or less. (See graph below with state rankings.)

For the study, the researchers gathered informed-consent booklets produced by 23 states that had made the materials publicly available at the time. They condensed the information relating to embryological and fetal development into a 900-question survey, which would be used to test the accuracy of the statements on a one-to-five scale, one being “completely true” and five being “completely false.” Then they recruited seven experts in embryological and fetal anatomy to evaluate whether the statements were as ”truthful” and “non-misleading” as the law mandates they be. To avoid biases, the Rutgers team did not tell the experts which states authored the materials or that they were related to abortion.

The most frequent inaccuracies the anatomists found overstated the rate at which embryos and fetuses develop during the first trimester of pregnancy, when the vast majority of abortions in the US are performed. “Given that most abortions are performed in the first trimester, these levels of inaccuracies are deeply concerning,” professor Cynthia Daniels at Rutgers University, told Futurity.

Some of the materials said that by the second week of pregnancy the fetus’s head has formed, which the expert consensus said was completely false; that brain activity can be recorded by week four, which the consensus said was between “more false than true” and “completely false;” and that from week nine, “hiccups begin,” which was also found to be “more false than true.”

And the booklets were more likely to speed up the development of limbs and vital organs like the heart and lungs. Some of the materials said that “arm and leg buds are present” by the second week of pregnancy, which was unanimously rated completely inaccurate, and that “fingers, toes, ankles, and wrists are completely formed” by week six, which is also wrong.

Statements like these, the paper noted, are deeply troubling because they could mislead pregnant women considering abortions into thinking their fetuses are more developed than they actually are.

“The abortion decision is not just about one’s own health but about one of the most fundamentally profound decisions a human being can make—whether to beget another human life,” the paper said. “Misinformation that represents the conceptus or embryo, for instance, as having the capacity for sentience or for developmental features close to a fully-formed baby might place a deeper emotional burden on a woman seeking an abortion.

“It is even more concerning when such misrepresentations are authored by the state and delivered by a medical provider—sources that patients rightfully expect to have confidence in as sources of reliable, accurate information,” the paper continued. “Violating the confidence of a patient to receive accurate information from these sources not only might have “severely adverse” effects on patients but also potentially undermines confidence in the integrity of the health care regulatory and medical provider systems.”