The Stories the Anti-Abortion Movement Doesn't Want You to Know
The "pro-life" movement is trying to silence doctors, because they know the truth is damning.
Remember the story of the 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio who had to travel to Indiana for an abortion? First, the anti-abortion movement, Republicans, and conservative commentators on major news networks and in the pages of reputable publications cast doubt on whether she even existed. Then, when it was proven that she did indeed exist and had indeed been cruelly forced to travel to end a pregnancy from rape, the Indiana Attorney General launched an investigation into the doctor who helped her. That’s right: Dr. Caitlin Bernard performed what was possibly a life-saving abortion on a ten-year-old, and she became the target.
Now, that same attorney general is asking the state’s medical licensing board to penalize Dr. Bernard for not reporting the girl’s rape to the Indiana authorities, and for speaking to the press. Except that the abuse didn’t happen in Indiana; it happened in Ohio, and had already been reported to the Ohio authorities and to child protective services — by the time Dr. Bernard saw the child, an investigation was already in motion.
This is the plan: Ban abortion, then hide the evidence of what happens.
Dr. Bernard did not tell reporters the child’s name, or much in the way of identifying information. She simply told the story of a patient she saw — something doctors and other health care workers do all the time, including in testimony to Congress and in mainstream news outlets. It is obviously a violation of patient privacy to identify specific patients or discuss their ailments. But the Indiana attorney general is essentially saying that doctors should be penalized if they talk to the press about what they’re seeing — that is, if it has to do with abortion. If a doctor or nurse says, “I had a patient come in with intestinal bleeding from taking Ivermectin” or “I gave a perfectly healthy patient a vaccination and they died the next day,” that’s a-ok.
And it’s definitely ok for abortion opponents to do this, even if they lie: Jill Stanek, a nurse and professional anti-abortion grifter, has made a name for herself testifying about abortions of “born-alive infants” — the alleged practice of letting infants die after attempted late-term abortions. In her testimony, including before Congress, she tells specific stories of what she says are infant patient deaths, including details of individual patients (Stanek has also said that Michael J. Fox is a cannibal who who has taken to “ingesting” fetuses to cure his Parkinson’s disease, so that may be helpful context in considering how seriously to take her claims). Point being: Health care workers telling reporters, friends, family members, or even Congress “I had a patient who…” is standard practice. Telling these stories is part of how doctors engage with the public. It’s how the public is able to understand the work of healthcare, and a whole variety of things, from mental health to rare illness to emerging diseases.
It’s only abortion stories that are treated differently.
The attacks on Dr. Bernard are part of a broader strategy. The Indiana attorney general is making a big public show not just to punish her — although he definitely wants to punish her — but also to scare any other health care provider out of talking about the horrors that they’re seeing. This is the plan: Ban abortion, then hide the evidence of what happens.
It’s not just elected abortion opponents who are doing this; it’s also the employers and public relations officers who perhaps fear retribution, or perhaps are cowards, or perhaps have their own politics in play. Health workers have told CNN that they are being muzzled and censored by their own hospitals, told that they are not allowed to speak with reporters and not allowed to talk about what they’re seeing in their offices and ERs.
This censorship is happening in all kinds of ways, many of them documented by CNN. A doctor at a hospital in the Northeast was told by her hospital’s PR department that she couldn’t speak to a reporter about what she was seeing in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe. “They’re censoring me,” the doctor told CNN. “It’s shameful and embarrassing to work for an institution that is not supportive of women’s rights.” A doctor at a different hospital in a different state said, “I feel shackled. I feel muzzled. I feel completely restrained, and I’m outraged.”
A doctor in Texas watched as a patient miscarried at 19 weeks, but was denied appropriate and potentially life-saving care until she was near death, thanks to Texas’s abortion ban. Her hospital made clear that they preferred she not speak to the press about it. “This has clearly been done to make us feel like criminals,” she told CNN. “That’s exactly how it makes us feel – like we’re doing something wrong,” she said. “I think we’re all pretty scared. I’m afraid of losing my job. I’m the primary breadwinner in my family, so losing my job would be a big, big deal.”
Other doctors told CNN they had been called in for a dressing-down by administrators for attending abortion rights events. One group of residents in an ob/gyn program posted on instagram that “abortion is healthcare” and were told to take it down by a university lawyer; a month later, lawyers lectured medical residents about the limitations on free speech. At the University of Texas Southwestwern Medical Center, researchers who published a study on what happened to miscarrying women at two Texas hospitals in the wake of Texas’s abortion ban saw their study, which was published in the American Journal of Gynecology, largely hidden by the institution; the center did not send out a press release as is standard, and did not make the researchers available for interviews with journalists, which is also standard. Over and over again, institutions that readily welcome coverage of their work go silent and sometimes censorious when it comes to abortion.
I’ve encountered this in my own reporting. I certainly don’t blame doctors or nurses who are hesitant to speak with me — there are often significant costs, many of them social, to talking about abortion as healthcare. And so I am always overwhelmingly grateful to the courageous minority of health workers who do speak out, knowing that their employment and even their safety may be at risk.
The anti-abortion movement wants to shut even this small number of health workers down, because they know that these stories are powerful. They know that Americans are horrified when they learn what abortion bans really do: That they of course consign women to motherhood against our will, but that they also mean women who have wanted but doomed pregnancies are cruelly forced to carry to term and birth babies who are dead or dying; that child rape victims are forced to risk their lives and become mothers before their bodies or minds are ready; that women who are miscarrying don’t get adequate treatment, and have to hemorrhage or go septic before they can get care.
That study out of Texas that was treated like an embarrassing secret? Here’s what it found happened to 28 women who came into two Dallas-area hospitals miscarrying fetuses that still had heartbeats:
Without the ability to offer abortion to their patients, all 28 women were managed expectantly. This is a medical way of saying that they waited for something terrible to happen. That wait lasted, on average, nine days.
During that nine days of waiting, here is what was achieved for the babies: 27 of the patients had loss of the fetus in utero or the death of the infant shortly after delivery. Of the entire cohort, one baby remained alive, still in the NICU at time of the journal article’s publication, with a long list of complications from extreme prematurity, including bleeding in the brain, brain swelling, damage to intestines, chronic lung disease. and liver dysfunction. If a baby survives these complications, they often result in permanent, lifelong illnesses.
During those nine days of waiting for an immediate threat to maternal life, here is what happened to the women of that cohort: Most of them went into labor, or had a stillbirth, which meant the medical team could then legally intervene and empty the uterus. Fifty-seven percent of those pregnant women had some sort of complication, and for about a third of them, it was serious enough to require intensive-care admission, surgery, or a second admission to the hospital. One of the 28 patients ended up with a hysterectomy, which means she will never carry a pregnancy again.
These are the stories they don’t want you to hear. These are the stories that “pro-life” politicians will attack, threaten, and persecute doctors for sharing — because these stories are how we come to understand what abortion bans really mean.