Teaching Myths about Abortion Complications

In this lecture, “Myths About Long-Term Complications of Abortion”, Jennifer Kerns, MD, MPH debunks common myths about abortion. It may be helpful to think about these myths as divided into three categories:

  1. Myths about the women who have abortions
  2. Myths about the clinicians who provide abortions and the facilities where they are done
  3. Myths about risks associated with abortion and effects of the procedure itself

Before students watch this lecture, ask them to reflect on these questions, either in small groups or individually.

  1. What characteristics come to mind when you think about a woman seeking abortion? How do you think other people might view women who seek abortions?
  2. What characteristics come to mind when you think about a health care provider who performs abortions? How do you think other people might view clinicians who do abortions?
  3. What are some of the risks of having an abortion that you have heard of, regardless of whether they are true or false? Can you think of any other risks people associate with abortion (again, regardless of whether you know them to be true or false)

Teaching Points

  • Women who access abortions are comprised of all ages, races, and religions, and that contrary to what many people think, the majority of women seeking abortions are already mothers.
  • Prevalent myths that abortions providers are untrained and deviant perpetuates a hostile environment for abortion providers and decreases opportunities for those providers to begin or continue providing abortion services.
  • Myths about structural requirements of facilities making abortion safer often inform non-evidence-based laws that further decrease women’s access to abortion.
  • Myths about abortion being associated with several negative health outcomes, including breast cancer, infertility, and depression are unfounded.
  • Rigorous study show no association between negative health outcomes and abortion.

After students watch the video, walk through each category and reiterate how Dr. Kerns debunks the myths, then discuss the consequences of the myths:

  1. Show data that women who seek abortions are representative of the general population – all races, religions, and economic backgrounds are represented. Then ask students to discuss the consequences of these myths (increased abortion stigma, decreased access).
  2. Present information about the safety of an abortion procedure – that it is a very simple and straightforward procedure. Present the fact that ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs) are not safer than freestanding clinics and that admitting privileges are not required for corollary medical procedures (can talk about TRAP laws here). Then ask students to discuss the consequences of these myths and laws (decreased opportunities for clinicians to start and continue providing abortions, isolation of providers from the medical community, decreased access for women).
  3. Present the studies that show a correlation between breast cancer and abortion and ask students to brainstorm better study designs. Then explain the problem of underreporting abortion – that all women are likely to underreport abortion, but that healthy women are more likely to underreport and “sick” women are less likely to underreport, leading to a false association between “sickness” and prior abortion. Present studies that avoid this type of bias (i.e. studies in countries with a medical registry where the history of abortion is not obtained from patient self-report). Show how this applies to other negative health outcomes being associated with abortion and highlight depression. Discuss the consequences of these myths about risks of abortion (decreased access, increased stigma).
  4. Spend some extra time talking about mental health, especially regret and post abortion syndrome. Brainstorm ways to accept and embrace that abortion is a difficult decision and that women choosing to have an abortion may have many complex emotions, but that is normal for a big life decision.

Lastly, examine the relationships between abortion myths, stigma, and decreased access to safe abortion. Present one of the most prevailing abortion myths: that if abortion becomes less accessible or illegal, fewer women will have abortions. Ask students to consider how this myth may affect their future practice.

Geffan Pearlson is a research assistant.