Op-Ed: Abortion and the myth of ‘protecting’ women

The furor on Capitol Hill over Planned Parenthood has stoked a debate about the use of tissue from aborted fetuses in medical research, but U.S. scientists have been using such cells for decades. Above, a Planned Parenthood facility in New York City on August 5.

The furor on Capitol Hill over Planned Parenthood has stoked a debate about the use of tissue from aborted fetuses in medical research, but U.S. scientists have been using such cells for decades. Above, a Planned Parenthood facility in New York City on August 5.

(Andrew Burton / Getty Images)

It’s been a month since the antiabortion group Center for Medical Progress released an undercover video purporting to prove that Planned Parenthood is illegally selling fetal parts. The charge was complete nonsense, and mainstream media sources quickly debunked it. Planned Parenthood donates the tissue, which is legal. Fetal tissue research has been around for decades. Republicans who are now opportunistically denouncing Planned Parenthood have, in the past, supported fetal tissue research.

But although that central lie has been thoroughly debunked, another has sprung up without getting as much attention: Anti-choice activists are using these videos to claim that abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood trick, bully and intimidate unwilling women into obtaining abortions.

The mainstream media largely ignored a sixth video put out last week by the center, and it isn’t hard to see why. It features an interview with a woman named Holly O’Donnell, who used to work for a biotech firm that handled Planned Parenthood fetal tissue donations, accusing her former employer of not getting proper consent from patients. O’Donnell doesn’t back up her accusations with any proof.


Despite the obvious shadiness of this whole enterprise, Fox News has been working the non-consensual angle. Sean Hannity, on his show, alleged: “They were not telling these mothers that they were harvesting these organs.”

Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America took it a step further. “Planned Parenthood is not a safe place for vulnerable women,” she said on Fox News. “It is a place that exploits women. And now we know, coerces them into abortion and sells their baby parts.”

Despite Nance acting as though this is a new argument — “now we know” — the claim that Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers coerce women into terminating their pregnancies has been bouncing around for some time.

Some anti-choice activists have suggested that clinics literally hold women down and force them to have abortions. But most people floating the “coerced abortion” myth are more subtle. They pretend that unscrupulous boyfriends and clinic workers exploit women’s supposed inability to make rational decisions when emotional.

In 2007, the National Review hosted a forum in which anti-choice activists laid out the theory that women are too stupid — though they shied away from that word — to make a fully informed choice to end a pregnancy. The woman is the “second victim of abortion,” argued Dorinda C. Bordlee of the Bioethics Defense Fund. Villanova University law professor Joseph Dellapenna concurred, saying, “Women were victims of the abortion and not perpetrators.”

Throughout the forum, participants advanced the notion that women choose abortion because the poor dears don’t know “abortion for what it is” because “health and legal authorities fail to tell them,” as Catholic blogger Pia de Solenni put it. And so, as Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, claimed, abortion bans are about “protection, not punishment.”


In other words, much as we have laws that say a minor is too immature to consent to sex, we ought to shield women — lifelong minors, effectively — from making choices about their own bodies.

The ignorance argument is all over the latest attacks on Planned Parenthood. David Daleiden, the head of the Center for Medical Progress, told the National Review that if he had a chance to ask Cecile Richards, the head of Planned Parenthood, anything, “I would ask her if she knows abortion the way Planned Parenthood providers know abortion.”

As Rebecca Traister noted in New York Magazine, the implication is that the 26-year-old Daleiden knows more about abortion than a 57-year-old woman who “has given birth to three children and publicly discussed her own abortion.” And who, you know, runs an organization that provides it.

Such is the power of misogyny: A man is automatically assumed to be wiser about the biological realities of pregnancy and abortion than a woman whose life work is providing gynecological care.

In the real world, women who choose abortion know what they are doing. That isn’t just a political slogan, as Daleiden claims; it’s backed up by extensive surveys actually asking women why they have abortions. And it’s doubly proved by studies showing that, years after the fact, 95% of women say that abortion was the right decision for them.

But even though the overwhelming evidence shows that women do know what they are doing, legislators keep passing abortion restrictions on the grounds that they have to “protect” women.


“Texans value life and want to protect women and the unborn,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared in 2013 to justify ramming through a bill meant to shut down nearly every abortion clinic in his state.

“We just knew if we signed that law,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said in defense of mandating ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, “if we provided the information, that more people if they saw that unborn child ... would make a decision to protect and keep the life of that unborn child.”

It’s easy to see why abortion opponents like the idea that women only terminate pregnancies because they lack information. That makes it easier to demand abortion bans without acknowledging that the state would have to throw a million women a year in jail for defying them. But American women are not idiots and we should not build our healthcare policy around a sexist stereotype.

Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist.

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