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“Abortion Pill Reversal” Myths & Emotional Injustice

| Reproaction

By: Cinnamon Williams

For decades now, the pro-life movement has tried to prop up their misogyny and fear of social progress by creating its own versions of healthcare and science.

The American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians & Gynecologists (AAPLOG) is a part of this movement. Founded immediately after the Roe v. Wade decision affirming the constitutional right to abortion, this group of medical officials has cultivated a body of work that is full of misleading and inaccurate information about abortion and contraception. For example, they have labeled oral contraceptives “abortifacients,” helping to spread the myth that medication abortion pills and birth control pills serve the same function. They have suggested that women are psychologically unstable after abortion procedures, popularizing the idea of “post-abortive syndrome.” This junk science has been used to justify laws restricting abortion access, spread myths about reproductive care, and feed crisis pregnancy centers (anti-abortion fake clinics) alternative facts with which they can mislead and shame people seeking abortion information. [1, 2]

Following the California Board of Registered Nursing’s decision to approve classes on “abortion pill reversal” early this year, pro-lifers have ramped up their rhetoric that puts women’s lives at risk. One program in particular, creatively named abortion pill reversal, is at the forefront of this effort. If you’re familiar with the campaign to reverse medication abortions, then you already know that the procedure has no scientific basis, that the California Board has changed their ruling on the course’s use in continuing education programs multiple times, [3] and that national bodies of medical officials have been vocal about their disagreement with the use of unproven theories as medical practice. [4]

For those who need a run-down of the myth: The medication abortion procedure consists of taking two pills. The first, mifepristone, stops progesterone from being produced. This is the hormone that is needed to sustain a pregnancy. The second, misoprostol, empties the contents of the uterus so that they can be expelled from the body. Proponents of the abortion pill reversal procedure claim that if a woman has taken the first pill and changes her mind, flooding her body with progesterone is highly likely to save the pregnancy. This is troubling for two main reasons. First, they have not tested this “reversal” with both pills, meaning their studies are incomplete. They have not given data on what the procedure means for women who have taken both pills in the regimen. Second, and most importantly, as far as we know, no provider of medication abortion has ever claimed that a pregnancy cannot continue even after mifepristone has been taken. You read that right. That means that the people in these clinics could be claiming to provide a service for something that has the chance to happen without medical intervention.

The false and misleading science is a huge problem. Just as insidious, though, is the emotional injustice and manipulation that women experience because of campaigns similar to this one.

A review of YouTube videos advertising abortion pill reversal makes the motives of its supporters clear. Take “Becky’s Story,” [5] for example. Before it begins, we are told that new medical protocol has given “unborn babies an eleventh-hour reprieve from abortion.” This is not about expanding women’s reproductive options or even listening to what women have to say about pregnancy, birth, and parenting. Fetuses are positioned as the moral authorities on life and death, rather than the women carrying them, which is to say that fake clinic operators who push reversal believe that women cannot be trusted to make their own decisions about their reproductive lives. It is not a new message from the right, but of course, that doesn’t make it any less tiring, nor less destructive.

Part of the strategy for legitimizing the idea and practice of abortion pill reversal is to vilify abortion clinics and the people who provide abortions. Becky narrates her experience in a clinic where she wasn’t told about what would be happening to her body or allowed to see her fetus in the process of getting an ultrasound. Depicting abortion clinics and abortion providers as cold, distant, calculated, and intent on providing abortions above all else supports the idea that there is no compassion or patient autonomy to be found in abortion clinics. It also denies the comprehensive systems that clinics – especially independent ones – have in place for counseling people who are thinking about having abortions. In contrast, the places that claim to perform abortion pill reversal – so frequently anti-abortion fake clinics – are represented as compassionate, open, and non-judgmental. Here’s the thing about practicing those three qualities though: It would be hard to do that if you’re also practicing deception.

Using women’s vulnerabilities about pregnancy and parenting to advance an anti-abortion agenda is dishonest and cruel. When they express hesitation – or any emotion – about abortion at any point of the process, what they need is a compassionate, nonjudgmental environment to work through and affirm their choices. Rather than listening to women as they try to make major decisions about their reproductive lives, people invested in abortion pill reversal prefer to force them into motherhood.

Pro-life advocates have a single narrative about abortion: To them, it is inseparable from regret, shame, and uncertainty. The only women that could possibly walk away from the procedure with none of those feelings are seen as abnormal and incapable of being maternal. This ignores the multiple and varied feelings people have about the procedure, but most importantly, it defines abortion as a negative experience for everyone who has one. In fact, studies have shown that almost 90 percent of women are sure about their decision, and another 90 percent expressed relief after their abortions. [6, 7]

Those of us on the left have serious work to do, too. Abortions carry different meanings for different people in different circumstances. Not every abortion is shared out loud, celebrated, or reflected on with gratitude. We make emotional justice harder to attain for women when we uplift only certain abortion narratives. Each day, women like Becky think about terminating pregnancies. Some of them decide to carry those pregnancies to term. Some of them do not want children and choose to have the procedure. Some of them do want children and also choose to have the procedure. Some of them have regret about that decision. Some of them have frustration. Some of them feel loss, sadness, even anger. Some cannot reconcile everything they feel about terminating a pregnancy. None of these experiences can be simply reduced to regret, and they all certainly can’t be addressed through tactics that ultimately propose one choice and one feeling and shame all others. We can acknowledge the complex feelings the procedure brings on without stigmatizing it, calling for an end to it, or suggesting that there is only one way to experience it.

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