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Why Lies About Reproductive Health Issues Matter

Today's post is from Carole Joffe, author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us. Joffe is a professor in the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. 

“Non-factually based statements” about Planned Parenthood and the HPV vaccine:

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-AZ.: “If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does.”

Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-MN: “I had a mother come up to me last night here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that [HPV] vaccine, that injection. And she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.

GardasilThese two statements, the first by Jon Kyl, a U.S. Senator, the second by Michelle Bachmann, a Congresswoman who is also a Presidential candidate, have each received wide public attention. Each of these statements is blatantly untrue. These statements are a disturbing reminder that the field of reproductive health is particularly susceptible to politicians playing fast and loose with the truth in order to curry favor with social conservatives.

Reproductive health services have always stirred controversy, intersecting as they do with issues of sexuality, morality, parental rights, and so on. But it was during the presidency of George W. Bush that the attacks on this aspect of health care—especially abortion care—became increasingly disengaged from the truth.

As I have detailed in my recent book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars, the Bush Presidency was marked by scandals such as government websites being pressured to list false information on the alleged links between abortion and breast cancer, and the purported ineffectiveness of condoms. An investigation of the curricula used in federally funded “abstinence only” programs found shocking evidence that some 80% of these programs gave misinformation to young people, such as “sweat and tears can lead to HIV transmission.”

The reproductive health community hoped that with the transition to a new administration these egregious distortions would stop. And in some respects the situation has improved. In the thank-goodness-for-small-favors department, we can be gratified that government websites no longer post such gross misinformation. But clearly, as the two quotes above make clear, untrue and irresponsible statements about reproductive health matters have not gone away in public discourse.

In the case of Senator Kyl’s statement, Planned Parenthood restated its frequent claims that abortions constituted 3% of its services, not the 90% the senator had claimed. The incident concluded, to the delight of many late-night comedians, with a Kyl spokesman acknowledging that “the senator’s remark was not intended to be a factually based statement.”

In the case of Congresswoman Bachmann’s “mental retardation” claim, this statement clearly proved to be a costly, possibly fatal error for her politically. Numerous commentators, including medical authorities, pointed to the complete lack of evidence for any link between the HPV vaccine and retardation. Bachmann appeared to worsen the situation when she responded to the growing backlash by stating defensively, ”I am not a doctor, I’m not a scientist, I’m not a physician. All I was doing is reporting what this woman told me last night…”

The dangers of non-factually based political discourse

0128Why do these untrue statements matter? After all, presumably most people—most importantly, the millions of women who go to Planned Parenthood for contraception, cancer and STI screenings—know Kyl was massively off base. Michelle Bachmann’s statement was roundly disputed by experts and seemingly has damaged her political fortunes. Nonetheless, I believe statements like these do very much matter. The normalization of lying about health care issues by prominent figures is a very serious breach of trust, and degrades our culture as a whole.

More specifically, these statements point to two different ways in which the field of reproductive health can be weakened by such deliberate distortions. In the case of Planned Parenthood, the attacks by Kyl and numerous other politicians who have sought to demonize the Federation have created a clever rhetorical trap, where the defense becomes, as shown above, that “only 3% of what we do is abortion.” In a version of the old “have you stopped beating your wife” question, these attacks succeed in further marginalizing abortion from other reproductive health care services in the public’s eye.

The serious damage done by Bachmann’s HPV anecdote is best illustrated by a headline that appeared shortly afterward in the New York Times Science Section: “Remark on HPV Vaccine Could Ripple for Years.” The article makes clear the dismay felt in the public health community about this incident.

In simplest terms, as the author puts it, “When politicians or celebrities raise alarms about vaccines, even false alarms, vaccination rates drop.” The HPV vaccine—most effective when given to young girls at ages 11 or 12, before they have started sexual activity—was already quite controversial, because some in the public felt it was a “license” for promiscuity (and there is increasing distrust of vaccines generally among some parent groups). As a result, even before the Bachmann remark, uptake of the vaccine was below expectations. Now, as a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics quoted in NYT article put it, “These things [politicians' misstatements] always set you back about three years, which is exactly what we can’t afford.

Photo by rachel a. k. on Flickr used under Creative Commons. 

A version of this post appeared on the ANSIRH blog.