'We're Not Doctors': The Dangerous Quackery Behind 'Abortion Reversal'
Republican lawmakers in Utah plan to introduce a bill mandating that doctors inform all women seeking abortion care of "abortion reversal," a potentially dangerous procedure that is not backed by science.
Illustration by Callie Beusman
Republican lawmakers in Utah are promising a new bill when the state session begins in January. According to Rewire, state Representative Keven Stratton and state Senator Curt Bramble will introduce a bill mandating that doctors inform all women seeking abortion care of a procedure that theoretically could reverse the process.
This is despite the fact that there is no scientific evidence that so-called "abortion reversal" works.
The two Utah lawmakers have also admitted that they are not necessarily experts on the matter either. "We're not doctors," Stratton told the Desert News.
You know who are doctors? The American College of Gynecologists (ACOG), who have gone on record saying abortion reversal is an unproven and potentially dangerous procedure. "Claims of medication abortion reversal are not supported by the body of scientific evidence," ACOG said in an official press release, adding that "[f]acts are important."
Medical abortion is accomplished by taking two medications: mifepristone and misoprostol. Mifepristone causes the uterine lining to thin and the fertilized egg to detach from the uterine wall. Misoprostol is taken 24-48 hours later and induces contractions to clear the tissue out. Mifepristone works by blocking progesterone. Without progesterone, the uterus lining disintegrates, and the fertilized egg can't latch on and develop.
George Delgado, abortion reversal inventor and founder of Abortion Pill Reversal, theorized that a massive dose of progesterone taken after the mifepristone but before the misoprostol could prevent contractions, beef up the uterine lining, and reverse the first step of medical abortion. "Our success rates with our most effective protocols are 65-70 percent survival," says Degado. However, the 2012 study he authored only had six participants.
According to ACOG, in 30-50 percent of women who only take the first abortion pill, the pregnancies continue. That means women who take the massive dose of progesterone after taking mifepristone are almost as likely to continue their pregnancy as women who just don't take misoprostol. "The medical literature is quite clear that mifepristone on its own is only about 50 percent effective at ending a pregnancy," Dr. Cheryl Chastine told Talking Points last year. "That means that even if these doctors were to offer a large dose of purple Skittles, they'd appear to have 'worked' to 'save' the pregnancy about half the time."
As women who took the early, high-hormone version of birth control learned, huge doses of progesterone can cause serious side effects. Nausea, weight gain, breast tenderness, hair loss, and even blood clots are all possible. "Progesterone, while generally well tolerated, can cause significant cardiovascular, nervous system and endocrine adverse reactions as well as other side effects," the ACOG press release reads.
It's an expression of their disrespect, that a woman can't make decisions herself.
Anti-abortion advocates have restricted women's access to safe and legal abortion under the guise of women's safety, including requiring abortion clinics to have admitting privileges to hospitals or be ambulatory surgical centers. Proponents of Utah's potential bill (and similar bills that have been passed in Arkansas, South Dakota, and Arizona) say they want to give women all the available information to help them make the right choice. So why give information that isn't medically sound?
"Sadly this isn't the first time, especially on the state level, that medical procedures that are unproven or unnecessary were mandated," says National Women's Health Network Executive Director Cindy Pearson. According to Pearson, other areas of medicine are nowhere near as meddled with through state law, and especially not in such a way that forces doctors to give incorrect advice to their patients. "The one place they do it is women's reproductive rights," she said.
Other examples of this meddling include the mandating of transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking an abortion, which according to the Guttmacher Institute, are required in 14 states. "In Texas, they're mandating that women be told abortions cause breast cancer, when they do not," says Pearson, referring to the Texas "informed consent" booklet abortion providers must hand out to their patients (26 states require abortion providers to provide similar pamphlets). "It's an expression of their disrespect, that a woman can't make decisions herself."
At the center of the debate around abortion reversal is the widely-held belief that women can't make decisions over their own bodies. Unfortunately, many anti-abortion advocates further perpetuate this belief by disseminating incorrect information about reproductive healthcare and women's choices. The Abortion Pill Reversal website has a gallery of "Regret Stories," providing anecdote after anecdote of women who came to regret their decision to terminate their pregnancies.
"All women who take mifepristone should be aware of the possibility of reversing effects should they change their minds about aborting their babies," Delgado wrote to Broadly.
Unfortunately, tactics like this are extremely misleading. "Women are no more likely to regret an abortion than regret any other way pregnancy ends," Pearson says. And a comprehensive study published last week found that abortions have little effect on women's mental health. Rather, women who are denied abortions are more likely to suffer psychological problems.
Pearson has worked as a women's health advocate for 30 years, and says she has seen how these restrictions come in waves. Different techniques will come into fashion, and then fall out of favor as case law makes that strategy less plausible. Utah will be the fifth state to try and pass a law mandating that women be informed of abortion reversal. (Louisiana lawmakers could not get their bill made into law, and Arizona repealed their version after Planned Parenthood took it to court, but Arkansas and South Dakota's abortion reversal notification laws are still on the books.) Other fads that have swept states include transvaginal ultrasounds, TRAP laws, and feticide laws. "The Whole Women's Health decision took some strategies out of the playbook," she adds, referring to the Supreme Court case that struck down restrictive TRAP laws in Texas. "When one way forward is blocked the force looks for another way."
With Trump in the White House, and Tom Price as Trump's pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services, abortion rights activists fear more restrictions are looming. "In 2010, after the Tea Party backlash against Obama and the Affordable Care Act, state legislatures swung more conservative, and abortion restrictions exploded," says Pearson. "I fear something similar is coming."