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Misinformation Skews Public Support for Abortion Laws

By TxPEP investigator Kari White and lead investigator Joe Potter

Featured in the Houston Chronicle, May 20, 2016

Soon the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a decision on the most significant abortion case in decades, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, about abortion regulations included in the Texas law known as HB2

Most opinion polls and surveys about abortion have focused on the public's support for legal access to the procedure, but few studies have homed in on support for the types of restrictions in HB2 or assessed support for laws that limit abortion access among women of reproductive age, who are most likely to be directly affected by such regulations.

In research conducted as part of the Texas Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Texas at Austin, we surveyed a statewide representative sample of more than 700 reproductive-aged Texas women in 2014 about their knowledge and attitudes about Texas abortion laws, which, including HB2, are some of the most restrictive in the nation.

Our study, recently published in "Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health," found that a majority of women in Texas do not support the restrictions on abortion that HB2 and other recent laws have mandated, such as requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital or requiring facilities where abortions are provided to meet ambulatory surgical center standards. More than half of the women surveyed (55 percent) had not heard of these laws, or if they had, did not know much about the laws' provisions. Among the women who were aware of the laws, 19 percent said they strongly or somewhat strongly supported them.

Our results also showed that those who support recent abortion restrictions seem to base their opinions on poor knowledge about the safety of abortion. Abortion is among the safest office-based procedures performed in the United States, but a majority of those who expressed some level of support for the Texas laws (64 percent) believe the laws would make abortion safer. But the risk of a woman having a serious complication that requires hospitalization is less than one quarter of 1 percent - that's fewer than 1 in 400 women.

In a recent review of over 50 scientific articles, we found that there is no difference in the complication rate between abortions performed in an outpatient clinic or an ambulatory surgical center or hospital. What's more, major medical associations have uniformly agreed these laws serve no medical purpose. Despite this evidence, proponents of laws like HB2 have waged a misinformation campaign about the risks of abortion that make these regulations seem like common sense, and in turn, might have neutralized opposition to the restrictions.

While the authors of the abortion laws in Texas deny their intention was to restrict access to abortion, other research has found that this indeed has been the result. The closure of more than half of Texas clinics performing abortion since passage of HB2 has left more than double the number of Texas women over 100 miles from the nearest clinic. Women seeking services face wait times for the next available appointment, meaning some might be unable to get an abortion until later in pregnancy. Others have been unable to overcome the financial and logistical burdens to reach a clinic and obtain care.

This increase in barriers to accessing abortion care is not aligned with the preferences of most women we surveyed. Fewer than one-third said they would favor a hypothetical law that makes it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion. The only group that said making abortion harder to get was their main reason for supporting Texas abortion laws was more conservative Republicans, who accounted for 19 percent of our sample. Only 24 percent of this group supported Texas laws for this reason - and fewer than 8 percent of less conservative Republicans, Independents and Democrats did so.

During oral arguments in the Supreme Court case, when pressed on the claims that the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements were passed due to concerns about safety, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller conceded that "legislatures react to topics that are of public concern." However, our results suggest that passage of major legislation on abortion in Texas has occurred without most women's knowledge and has taken advantage of the public's misinformation about the safety of abortion.

As the Supreme Court reviews the Texas law, it's critical to recognize that the majority of reproductive-aged women in Texas do not support legislation that impedes access to this essential health service.