Mendacity Exposed: Researcher Debunks the Big Lie on Abortion and Mental Health

We live in a mendocracy.

As in: rule by liars.

These are the words of Rick Pearlstein writing in the Daily Beast about the complicity of both the Obama Administration and the mainstream media in perpetuating lies about Obama’s policies told by the far right during midterm election campaigns. These lies shaped public opinion and as a result, the outcome of the election.

“When one side breaks the social contract,” he continues, “and the other side makes a virtue of never calling them out on it, the liar always wins. When it becomes “uncivil” to call out liars, lying becomes free.”

Pearlstein’s analysis can easily be extrapolated to the failure of mainstream media–and of government officials–to do their job in the debate around abortion in the United States, as was forcefully and eloquently argued in the Washington Post this past Sunday by Brenda Major, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

Major writes about the distortion of scientific principles and research findings in one of the “newer” battles in abortion care, that which focuses on “harms” done to women who choose not to continue an unwanted or untenable pregnancy.  As we’ve reported here extensively on a state-by-state basis, and as Major points out in her article, under the banner of “a woman’s right to know” a number of states (Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and West Virginia) have passed laws mandating that women seeking abortions be told that abortion is associated with mental health risks that include post-traumatic stress and a greater danger of suicide.

Except that it is patently untrue.

“It’s commendable to help women make an informed choice,” writes Major. “But an informed choice requires accurate information. And these laws mandate that women be misled.” [emphasis added].

Rigorous U.S. scientific studies have not substantiated the claim that abortion, compared with its alternatives, causes an increased incidence of mental health problems. The same conclusion was reached in 2008 by an American Psychological Association task force, which I chaired, as well as by an independent team of scholars at Johns Hopkins University. As recently as September, Oregon State University researchers announced the results of a national study showing that teenagers who have an abortion are no more likely to become depressed or to have low self-esteem one year or five years later, compared with their peers who deliver.

In other words, just like the case of the midterms in which a large share of the electorate believed “facts” about Obama’s policies that had no basis in, well, fact, “the claim that abortion harms women’s mental health persists,” states Major, despite scientific research and evidence completely debunking these claims.

Instead, as with other restrictions on women’s access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care:

“Promoting this claim is part of a political strategy aimed at dissuading women from terminating a pregnancy and at making abortions difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. It is a strategy that distorts scientific principles, even as it uses the umbrella of scientific research to advance its aims.

Major points out two logical flaws in the arguments made by anti-choice proponents.

First “is a confusion of correlation with causation.” As part of their strategy, some anti-choice advocates “scour” existing data for evidence linking abortion and a wide variety of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and alcohol use. They cite any correlations they find as evidence that abortion causes harm to women.”

But “the most plausible explanation for the association that some studies find between abortion and mental health is that it reflects preexisting differences between women who continue a pregnancy and those who end one.”

A substantial amount of research shows that women who deliver babies are, on average, more likely to have planned and wanted their pregnancies and to feel emotionally and financially capable of becoming a mother. In contrast, women who seek abortions are, on average, less likely to be married or involved in an intimate relationship, more likely to be poor, and more likely to have suffered physical or psychological abuse. All of these latter qualities are risk factors for poor mental health.

Laws such as those in Nebraska ignore the fact that “the very characteristics that predispose women to emotional or mental health problems following an abortion also predispose them to postpartum depression if they deliver or to mental health problems in general, even if they do not become pregnant.”  Of course, if you’re worried about women you’d then also want to screen women for postpartum depression to assist them after birth. None of the laws in question do.

The second logical flaw in these campaigns “involves what psychologists call the “availability heuristic.””

Essentially, it means that vivid, first-person accounts that can be easily brought to mind, such as the personal stories of women who feel harmed by abortion, influence our estimates of the frequency of an event more than dry, statistical data do. For example, people think the probability of dying by homicide is greater than that of dying by stomach cancer, even though the rate of death by the latter is five times higher than death by the former. They err because examples of homicide are easier to recall than examples of stomach cancer.

In just this way, she underscores, “the emotionally evocative stories of a minority of women can lead people to overestimate the frequency of those experiences.”

Citing her own research, Major writes:

[B]ased on clinic interviews in the 1990s with more than 400 women who obtained a first-trimester abortion, shows that women who terminate an unplanned pregnancy report a range of feelings, including sadness and loss as well as relief. Nonetheless, two years after their abortion, most women say they would make the same decision if they had it to do over again under the same circumstances. Because of the stigma attached to abortion in our society, however, most women feel they can’t talk about their abortions – unless they repent. [emphasis added].

Yet despite the evidence, claims about the adverse effects on women of abortion are widespread and rarely challenged by the mainstream media.  In fact, they are, to the contrary, perpetuated by the media. 

For example, unsubstantiated claims about mental health were rife in debates about Nebraska’s abortion law, yet few if any stories generated by media outside the reproductive health community pointed to the lack of any evidence to support the claims on which the law was being written. Moreover, when quoting “experts,” equal time was often given to those who had no evidence to back up their claims as to those with knowledge of solid research and evidence on these issues, implying that the “viewpoints” or blatant misinformation spread by one set of actors were of equal merit to peer-reviewed research and data, even when that data proved otherwise. 

A similar failure of media responsibility occurrs with claims about “fetal pain,” a claim made by anti-choicers for which there is no evidence.  Recently, the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section gave a platform to each of two anti-choice advocates who spread misinformation on fetal pain (among a range of other things), Charles Camosy and Jill Stanek.  These are people whose agenda it is to deprive women of their agency in making choices for themselves about when, whether, and with whom to bear a child, and use wild and unsubstantiated claims in doing so, yet get space in “venerated” papers such as the Post. It does not suffice to say, “well, the Post also published Brenda Major’s article,” because again that is drawing equivalency between people who use lies to push for policies that accord with their own ideological agenda, and those who seek to inform public policy based on the best available evidence.  What standard is the Post accountable for when publishing people who are using religion and ideology as a means of depriving women (gay people, teens, prisoners, others) of their rights using unsupported claims?  Is it enough to articulate a “religious view” as a marker of legitimacy?  If the Catholic Church tomorrow decided it once again supported the view that the earth is flat, would the Post give the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops a page to argue that, and leave it unanswered?

False claims and lies used to advance political and ideological agendas are a central component of the anti-choice uber-strategy, but these same efforts to distract, deflect, and misinform are becoming an increasingly prevalent and uncontested characteristic of our social discourse more broadly–on gay rights, immigrants rights, climate change and inequality, among other areas of concern. In the abortion debate as in the political debate writ large, campaigns gear up to “inform” through misinformation leading to “misinformed choices” that comport with the agendas of those in power or who wish to be in power.  As our “mendocracy” has become more and more entrenched, Pearlstein states at Daily Beast: “Governing has become impossible.”  These trends endanger and diminish all of us and undermine the very fabric of a society seeking to survive and prosper.  It is up to each of us to protest the “age of misinformation” and stop it in its tracks.

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  • abortion-recovery-international

    Abortion Recovery InterNational helps approximately 40,000 individuals and family members a year who suffer grief after abortion.  We, as an agency, have no political agenda.  We are only focused on healing those that hurt emotionally after abortion. 


    If you, or someone you know, needs emotional support following an abortion experience, find help at:

  • prochoicekatie

    Do you also provide support services to those who suffer miscarraiges? Anguish after adoption? Post-partum depression? 

    Stress after a break-up?

    While you as an organization may or may not have an agenda, the point that Jacobson is  trying to make is that grief may be experienced – and is experienced – after many life choices or situations. The problem is that the anti-choice movement – which you claim to not be a part of – purports the idea that correlation and causation are the same thing. We believe that even though someone may experience distress after a difficult life decision, it does not mean they have necessarily made the wrong choice, and that even if some have made the wrong decision for themselves, others should not be prevented from making the same choice if it is in fact the right choice for those people. In addition, inofrmation should not  be presented in  a biased way, because that in and of itself diminishes choice and good decision making. No matter your situation.

  • catseye71352

    90% of “post-abortion trauma” is a direct result of a woman being badgered by sanctimonious self-righteous bigots.

  • rebellious-grrl

    It is up to each of us to protest the “age of misinformation” and stop it in its tracks.

    Jodi, great article. It’s been on my mind a lot lately the lies spewed by the tea party and GOP. Their lies and misinformation are dangerous and debilitating. It’s like the more the right engages in their misinformation campaigns, society gets meaner. The nastiness and anger seams like it’s at an all time high but I’m afraid it will get worse and as the economy tanks lower.

    As sane people I think we have a duty protest the “age of misinformation.” This is what RHRC does on a daily basis. Great job! 

  • faultroy

    I certainly agree that there is a lot of misinformation to go around–on both sides of the debate.  Take the article above quoting Barbara Majors about women being “misled” and Mrs. Jacobson implying we live in a society of liars. Ms Majors says that there is no scientific evidence. But in the article, Majors quotes a study of four hundred teenage girls and says: “…based on clinic interviews of 400 teenaged women having abortions, , most women say they would make the same decision if they had it to do over again under the same circumstances. Because of the stigma attached to abortion in our society, however, most women feel they can’t talk about their abortions – unless they repent. [emphasis added]. Gee that’s a perfectly scientific analysis–how did she do a quantitative study on women not being able to talk about abortion unless they “repent,”…yeah, that’s real “scientific.” Note Dr. Majors says that there is a certain percentage of young girls that did not feel this way, otherwise Dr. Majors would have said: ALL the teenaged women.  She further mentions that all of the women had feelings of loss, sadness and depression.  Gee, that sounds like mental health issues to me.  And why does not Dr. Majors tell us about the girls that did have feelings after the two year incubation period.  And what about women that have an abortion into the second trimester  Do they all feel as the women that have an abortion within the first trimester?  And what about the range of feelings and their degree: does a woman having an abortion within one week of missing her period have the same level of feelings as a woman having carrying a fetus into the second trimester?  I find this extremely odd since Dr. Majors seems so concerned about women being able to make specific INFORMED choices yet when it comes time to allow readers to make INFORMED DEDUCTIONS she moves from quantitative analysis to sloppy “kind of,” a lot of, most of them” “the majority of,” etc verbiage.  I for one would like to make my own decision and look at the data.–Talk about lying!!!!! Because there will always be some women that will have second thoughts and misgivings, along with true regret, it seems pretty prudent to me to request the kind of intervention the various states have instituted.  After all, not all people die of lung cancer, but we have the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes.  Are we going to accuse the FDA of “lying and misinforming” because all people that smoke do not die of lung cancer?  And what about all the warning labels that lawyers require on products sold to the public.  Are we accusing them of “lying” because we did not get hurt and they’re willfully misleading the public?  And what about drinking and driving?  The law talks about intoxication.  But everyone knows that many people are perfectly in control if they blow a .08.  As a matter of fact, the biggest argument in most of the states was that most people blowing a .08 are not intoxicated.  My point being that we have a long history of this kind of qualification and Dr. Majors should know this.  From my perspective, she is being anything but honest forthright and professional.  It certainly looks like she is more concerned about her personal agenda than disseminating reasonable  and unbiased scientific analysis.

  • faultroy

    you’re certainly out of touch with mainstream feminists that believe that no women should have to undergo any embarrassment, discomfort or inconvenience.  Take for example the Center for Disease Control Study on “Intimate Spousal Abuse.”  The CDC states that even if a male argues or cause “emotional stress,” that is considered “intimate partner violence.” (Think I’m lying, go read the study on the CDC website.)  The fact of the mattter is that Feminists have so whored the very idea of common sense and reality that this is now coming full circle and biting the average woman in her tush.  When you scream wolf too many times and people start to listen, then… well they start enacting laws to “help you.”  For Jacobson to now argue that this is an unnecessary breach of women’s reproductive rights is laughable since she is a hard core Feminist.  If the trends continue– and it looks like they will– you will be afraid to take you child to the supermarket for fear of they saying that you are a bad parent and having you kids taken away from you.  These Soccer Mom Facists are all very liberal and never saw an entitlement that they didn’t like, and they are very nice–as long as you conform to their values.  However, if you are an independent soul and choose to raise you children on your terms as opposed to theirs, well, you can expect a visit by the Division of Youth and Family Services–“to protect the kids of course.”  You know the old biblical saying: “One reaps what one sows.”

  • faultroy

    You are correct: Society is getting meaner, nastier and more facist.  But you need to hone your critical thinking skills.  You blame the TEA party, but this has been going on for far longer.  Note that we have a degrading educational system.  We have serious issues on health care.  The costs of health care are rising faster than we can absorb the costs.  We have more people in prison than any country in the world–and that includes dictatorial regimes.  We have the highest level of obesity and we are now seeing epidemic numbers of children with Type II Diabetes–which is acquired almost entirely from eating junk food and a unhealthy lifestyle.  Is the TEA Party causing all this?  So what is the common demographic denominator to each of these problems?  The common denominator is WOMEN.. women make up 94 per cent of the education industry, 96 per cent of the healthcare industry and 99.9 per cent of the “mommy industry.”  …and you know the old saying” If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, the odds are prettty good it’s a duck.”–get it?

  • arekushieru

    …of mental health????  Uh, yeah.  Someone needs to learn that difference which is between being the determinant of one’s OWN mental health and having OTHERS determine their mental health for them.  DERRRRR…..  

  • squirrely-girl

    … to the made up stats you just pulled out of your…

  • squirrely-girl

    … and take a few minutes to research the original source info.


    You’re going to have a difficult time arguing that a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who is also a fellow (kind of a big deal) at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University is not only uber biased but is publishing biased research in top tier, peer-reviewed academic journals. But please, don’t let me stop you from the fun of trying…


  • squirrely-girl

    … but I have no interest in reading posts about how teh feminists have “so whored the very idea of common sense and reality.” Creative. Sincerely. I mean, wow, who could have ever thought to use a pejorative female term referencing sex to insult women seeking sexual and gender equality… hmmmm.


    But please, tell us all how you’re not a misogynist ;)

  • beenthere72

    It’s not just you.  I also have little interest in reading his posts because they’re just one giant block of text, for the most part.   Someone likes the sound of his own typing, I s’pose, and the enter key must be broken.

    • katwa

      RH needs to make it so the replies to the greyed comments are ALSO minimized and greyed. Then we can skip the whole thread started by the idiots if we want, or expand it if we want to read.

  • forced-birth-rape

    ~ He is also does a lot of prophesying, most of the right wing men I know believe themselves to be a Jesus.~

  • beenthere72

    Your ability to twist the subject matter of posts here to suit your mysoginistic agenda is uncanny.  


    It’s apparent that you are not the type of person to take responsibility for your own actions and are quick to blame *the evil womenz* for what apparently is a horrible life you lead.


    Are you blaming the ‘mommy industry’ for rising healthcare costs and obesity because are on the frontline?   Where’s dad in this picture?    Is dad contributing to poverty rates?   Dad’s most definitely contributing to crime rates.   Are you blaming teachers for degrading education because they are on the frontline?   Are you blaming nurses for the rising costs of health care because they are on the frontline?    Aren’t the majority of doctors male?  How about the majority of insurance company executives?   How about lobbyists?   Willing to bet they’re mostly male.  Oh, and lawmakers!   Shit, last time I checked they were most certainly male.  


    Do you blame the soldier on the front line for the mistakes of his superiors?   Do you blame the soldier on the front line for the war in general?    How DARE you blame women for the ills of an entire society.    How dare you blame that soldier on the front line for an entire war we can’t win.  

  • rebellious-grrl

    Misogynist much? 

  • rebellious-grrl

    Well said beenthere72. Thanks!

  • beenthere72

    Thank you!   But wait, there was one thing I didn’t address – the prison population.  How in the HELL is he going to blame THAT one on women.   It’s all our fault that men commit crimes now too? 







  • colleen

    How in the HELL is he going to blame THAT one on women.

    With the exception of rape, conservatives blame high crime rates on single mothers. Rape they blame on feminists.

  • ack

    RG, I completely agree with you. But why do Dems suck SO BADLY at messaging? There are ample opportunities to refute the lies, but I’m not seeing too many politicians standing up and taking them.

  • rebellious-grrl

    After being violently threatened by the MRA troll “Jacqueline” I really don’t want to talk to the trolls. They are misogynistic and hateful. They blame everything on women.


    Thanks for the post colleen. So true.