How Anti-Choice Activists Turned Anecdotes Into Public Policy

"We have socially constructed women into law as lacking agency and being incapable of making their own decisions.”

Anti-Choice activists protest at the U.S. Supreme Court building on October 2, 2017. Lauryn Gutierrez / Rewire

When pro-choice advocate Alison Dreith received abortion care in 2016, she waited a while to tell her mom. When she did, her mom asked Dreith if she had any regrets.

“This is a woman who is pro-choice and has been a Democratic stronghold her entire life and she asked me if I regretted it,” said Dreith, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri. “When you have effective messaging that stems from deceit and untrue information, it filters into everything, even on the pro-choice side.”

Dreith doesn’t regret her abortion; she knows parenting isn’t for her. Yet the myth that women come to regret their abortion procedures has permeated the discourse around reproductive choice and slithered into public policy, said Alesha Doan, associate professor at the University of Kansas and co-author of a recent study that examines how anti-choice activists have legitimized so-called abortion regret.

Hundreds of anti-choice laws have been enacted at the state level since 2010, when Republicans swept to power across the United States. Many of those GOP-backed policies are based on the idea of abortion regret—a scientifically discredited assertion that abortion causes long-term health problems, Doan said.  

“I wanted to examine where this idea comes from,” Doan said. “Credible research and scientific evidence do not support the idea that trauma from abortion is widespread, but these claims are still being made.”

Doan worked with two other researchers, Carolina Costa Candal, a KU political science doctoral candidate, and Steven Sylvester, an assistant professor at Utah Valley University, to interview 23 anti-choice activists. The researchers found that personal stories of women who experience abortion regret have validated the narrative and lead to misinformation regarding abortion regret as fact.

For many in anti-choice circles, stories of regret and the negative health outcomes as a result of that regret are the only stories they hear, Doan said. That becomes their reality.

“Experiential knowledge is credible because it comes from women’s experiences,” Doan said. “So for some women who have come to regret their abortions, maybe they did experience trauma around that, however, there is not corresponding credible evidence to support abortion regret as a generalized condition of all women.”

Personal storytelling has always been powerful in political and social movements, Doan said, noting its effectiveness in the Me Too movement, which is changing the conversation around sexual assault. However, there’s a large body of evidence to support sexual assault and harassment as a large-scale problem, whereas there isn’t evidence to support abortion regret being widespread among those who have undergone the common medical procedure. 

Despite its lack of scientific evidence, the narrative of abortion regret has manifested into public policy. Forced waiting periods, informed consent laws, and even fetal protection laws can all be tied to the abortion regret narrative, Doan said.

Thirty-five states require people undergo counseling before receiving abortion care, and 27 states require people to wait at least 24 hours between counseling and the procedure. Thirteen states include information on fetal pain in counseling materials (a concept that has not been scientifically proven); six states require the patient be told that personhood begins at conception; five of the eight states that include information on breast cancer inaccurately assert a link between abortion and an increased risk of cancer; and eight of the 20 states that include information on possible psychological responses to abortion stress negative emotional responses.

“This narrative of regret can be traced back to a fundamental construction of women that has been around for a very long time—that our natural purpose is motherhood, so anything that disrupts that must lead to regret,” Doan said. “This relates to legislation aimed at protecting women because if I am doing something innately harmful to myself, then I can’t be trusted. I am being coerced or am uninformed.”

The abortion regret narrative isn’t just rhetoric, but a political strategy that has enabled conservative politicians to restrict access to reproductive health care. In Texas, a forced 24-hour waiting period is mandatory between the first appointment and an abortion, a person is required to undergo counseling with medically inaccurate information, and they must receive a transvaginal ultrasound and hear the heartbeat if one can be detected. For people with low incomes and those living in rural areas who have to travel long distances to get to a clinic, these laws greatly hinder their ability to access abortion care, said Nikki Metzgar, communications officer for Planned Parenthood Texas Votes.

“For too many people in Texas, the legal right to an abortion doesn’t translate into access,” Metzgar said. “People have to go to great lengths to access abortion care, which of course is the point of these laws.”

Missouri is one of only five states with a 72-hour waiting period, made law by the state’s GOP-held legislature. Dreith traveled to Illinois to avoid the waiting period, but she sees how it affects people in her state, where she works to advance policies protecting reproductive choice.

“The arguments we hear from anti-choice legislators is that these laws are about the health and safety of women and that is just not true,” Dreith said. “To think that women regret these decisions or that we don’t know what our choices are, is just really insulting.”

Even more than hindering access to reproductive health care, the real harm in laws based on the myth of abortion regret is their contribution to the stigma surrounding abortion care and the way they codify misogyny into law, advocates said.

“When you hear constantly how you should react to something, and those messages are out there, everybody absorbs them and it becomes a very powerful message,” Doan said. “Once we have policies based on anecdotes, they become difficult to undo. We have socially constructed women into law as lacking agency and being incapable of making their own decisions.”