March 01, 2016

Rutgers study: Women seeking abortions often get false information

31 percent of facts presented in 23 state-provided booklets deemed inaccurate by medical experts

Thirty-eight states require that women who want an abortion must receive some kind of counseling beforehand, which often involves getting a pamphlet of medical information. The Supreme Court ruled in 1992 that these requirements are legal as long as any materials the women receive are "truthful and not misleading" and contain "accurate scientific information."

A study conducted by Rutgers University, however, has found that many state-provided materials are riddled with inaccuracies. When anatomical experts fact-checked pamphlets given to women seeking abortions in 23 states, they found that 31 percent of the statements related to fetal development that they could evaluate were "medically inaccurate."

"What surprised us was the level of medical inaccuracies we found across all the states," said lead study author Cynthia Daniels, a professor of political science and gender studies at Rutgers New Brunswick and leader of the Informed Consent Project.

"We found levels of medical inaccuracies in both the blue states and the red states, the Northern states and Southern states. It wasn't concentrated in one particular region or particular party," she added.

The states with the most inaccurate pamphlets were North Carolina, Michigan and Kansas, while the least inaccurate pamphlets were found in Alaska, Wisconsin, Alabama, Georgia and West Virginia. Inaccuracy rates ranged from nearly 15 percent for Alaska to 46 percent for North Carolina.

In Pennsylvania, 23 out of 96 statements related to fetal development in the state-mandated booklet "Abortion: Making A Decision" were inaccurate. Daniels put up a version of that booklet with inaccurate statements highlighted on her website,

Unfamiliar statements

The study team collected pamphlets given to women seeking abortions in 23 states, and from them, created a list of statements related to fetal development. Then they asked seven specialists from the American Academy of Anatomists to review the statements for accuracy.

These specialists didn't know where the statements came from and, in fact, had no idea that the study was related to abortion. They were only told that they were reviewing materials given out at "women's medical health facilities."

"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," said Daniels.

Much of the time, the experts were unsure of how to evaluate the statements because they involved facts that are not routinely brought up in medical textbooks, like when a fetus starts to grow eyelashes. Twenty-nine percent of the statements were rated as "unsure" or "don't know."

"We find it concerning that a group of specialists in human anatomy might find so many statements unfamiliar to them," commented Daniels.

Out of the statements that remained, 31 percent were flagged as inaccurate. Some of the claims that the experts marked as completely false included: the head forms by week 2 of gestation; fingers and toes are completely formed by week 6; a fetus can cry and blink by week 16.

None of those statements are true, according to the panel of experts employed in the study. They represent a pattern that the study authors noticed: Inaccurate statements tended to be most concentrated in the first trimester of pregnancy. In the pamphlet used in Pennsylvania, for example, 9 out of 22 statements related to the first trimester are inaccurate.

Daniels said that it would be beyond the scope of her study to speculate why these inaccuracies persist, but she did note that the pamphlets are created by state health departments, not independent doctors.

'I want the state information to reflect the truth'

Edel Finnegan, executive director of the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia, said that she found the study "interesting" and commented, "I agree, materials distributed by the state should be updated, if needed, so that women are given accurate information."

She recounted a debate she had with a pro-abortion rights woman outside an abortion clinic just this week. For all that the women disagreed, they did find common ground over one principle: Women deserve to know the truth.

However, Finnegan also said that studies should also look into other factors besides the information packets, like what the doctors say to women when they're actually in the clinics.

She said that she cares "about how the abortion industry and the doctor performing the abortion speak with women about the facts of abortion, the reality of fetal development and how they will be impacted physically and emotionally...I want the state information to reflect the truth about abortion and fetal development. My concern is that the state information and the abortion industry is not reflecting the truth about abortion."

Daniels said women's mental and physical health will, in fact, be the focus of her next study: "That's one of our next projects — evaluation of statements about risks associated with abortion and pregnancy."

Read the full study here.