Study Finds Women Who Want Abortions Are Often Given Misleading Information

The materials distributed at clinics misstate fetal development.

(Photo: Keith Brofsky/Getty Images)

Mar 3, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Alex Reed is an editorial intern at TakePart and a senior at the University of Southern California.

It’s the law in 38 states that when a woman chooses to have an abortion, a doctor has to counsel her and give her informational materials prior to the procedure. The idea is that these state-issued pamphlets will allow a woman to give “informed consent” about the termination of a pregnancy. But according to a recent study by researchers at Rutgers University, the information on fetal development in these materials is scientifically incorrect or misleading about 30 percent of the time.

For the study, published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, the researchers obtained materials from 23 states with informed consent statutes. Most inaccuracies were found in information provided about fetal development during the first trimester of pregnancy, which is when 90 percent of women have abortions.

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“Given that most abortions are performed in the first trimester, these levels of inaccuracies are deeply concerning,” the study’s lead author, Cynthia Daniels, a professor of political science and gender studies at Rutgers University, said in a statement. “Patients should be confident their doctor is providing them with accurate information. Misinformation is a threat to the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship and to the medical system as a whole, especially in decisions about pregnancy.”

Most informed consent laws originated after Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 Supreme Court case that upheld their constitutionality. The ruling in the case established that states are allowed to have a vested interest in the potential life of a fetus and express a preference for childbirth over abortion in consent materials. But, according to the ruling, the medical information provided at abortion clinics must be accurate and “nonmisleading.”

Daniels and her team analyzed every statement of fact in the pamphlets regarding embryological and fetal development—the primary focus of most informed-consent materials. They then built a survey on which to evaluate how truthful each statement was and whether it gave the “correct impression” or was misleading. The survey was issued to embryologists, medical college faculty, and other medical experts, who were asked to evaluate the statements without knowing which state provided the information.

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“We went to great lengths to keep this as unbiased and scientifically sound as we could, which is why we went to the annual meeting of human anatomists to recruit people to the project who were completely removed from the politics of it and were completely unaware of the fact that this was related to information given to women in abortion settings,” Daniels told Philly Voice.

The incorrect information included statements that accelerated fetal development and suggested that internal organ systems and extremities developed much earlier than they actually do. The materials also suggested that “baby-like” characteristics, such as breathing or experiencing pain, occur earlier than has been medically proven. The words “baby” and “unborn,” as opposed to “fetus,” the correct medical term, were also more likely to appear in materials containing misinformation. The authors wrote in the study that an unreasonable emotional burden is placed on women seeking abortions if they are misled about the progression of their pregnancy.

While nearly 70 percent of the 23 states in the study were found to provide accurate information, the statements in materials from the remaining states ranged from 15 to 47 percent inaccurate, with the highest numbers of inaccurate facts found in the South and Midwest.

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Most of the materials were written by state health departments and panels of medical experts, but some states noted in their pamphlets that information was copied directly from the brochures of other states. Kansas, for example, was found to provide the third-most-inaccurate consent materials, but it was also among the states that had its materials copied most often.

The study’s authors concluded that incorrect and misleading information goes beyond a state’s right to express preference for childbirth over termination of a pregnancy. “Our findings suggest these laws may produce ‘misinformed consent’ and may require the court to rethink the constitutionality of abortion-related informed consent laws as a whole,” said Daniels in the statement.