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Study looks at 'abortion regret' tactic in some states' legislation

Monday, January 22, 2018

LAWRENCE — Controversy surrounding abortion is not new — this month is the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion — but several states in recent years have taken a more novel approach to passing anti-abortion legislation, according to a University of Kansas researcher of public policy and gender and social equity.

States have enacted laws around "abortion regret," which focuses on the idea that abortion causes long-term health problems for women, said Alesha Doan, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration and Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies. Scientific evidence has largely discredited the idea, but it remains an effective anti-abortion advocacy tool, Doan said, because regret narratives involve people discussing their own experiences, which are emotionally compelling stories that are persuasive to the listener.

Doan recently co-authored a study published in the journal Law & Policy with KU political science doctoral candidate Carolina Costa Candal and Steven Sylvester, a KU political science graduate who is currently an assistant professor at Utah Valley University. They wanted to examine how antiabortion activists' experiential knowledge factored into misinformation in the policy process.

The researchers interviewed 23 anti-abortion activists and found that the misinformation surrounding abortion regret as scientific fact has largely received validation through experiential knowledge. Activists have mobilized around narratives of abortion regret and used them as a source of generalizable evidence in the policymaking process, she said.

"Experiential knowledge is a different way of knowing something. It's learning through an experience that is credible and genuine to the individual even though it provides a limited perspective. However, that does not mean that one person's interpretation of an experience is true for everyone else who has had a similar experience," she said.

The anti-abortion movement has not entirely abandoned larger grassroots protesting at clinics, but activists in recent decades have tended to focus more on lobbying legislators to pass restrictions built on the discredited assertion that women who have had an abortion experience lifelong consequences and thus the state should intervene in their reproductive choices, Doan said.

Even though this idea of abortion regret had not received scientific validation, sharing anecdotal stories in some cases can be more effective than seeking to use statistics or scientific data, she said, which has likely created the opening for this tactic.

"It can be more meaningful. It resonates with people, and it's emotionally compelling," Doan said.

She said the research is not meant to devalue experiential knowledge and what individual people have gone through. The activists they interviewed were genuine in their opinions and believed they were helping women by seeking to share their own personal experiences or those of someone they knew.

"I am not disrespectful of people's experiential knowledge," Doan said, " but it provides a limited view. Putting an anecdote in a larger context and conversation is important. Otherwise elected officials end up legislating based on anecdote opposed to science." 

The 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, gave credence to the abortion regret narrative, even though it was not based on scientifically credible information, and it created an opening for 17 states to pass future anti-abortion legislation surrounding it, Doan said.

Aside from the misinformation contained in many of these policies, Doan said the focus on abortion regret has added a new facet to the abortion debate.

"I would credit this idea of regret and the shaming aspects of the regret narrative as leading to a larger stigma of abortion," Doan said. "Society is uncomfortable acknowledging the reality of women's reproductive health. Nearly one-quarter of women living in the U.S. have an abortion by the age of 45, and the complexity of their decision-making can't be boiled down to anti-abortion or pro-choice soundbites. Society needs to have a more nuanced conversation about abortion that reflects the reality of women's experiences while allowing women to define their experiences and not have those experiences scripted for them by activists or the state."

Even 45 years after the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, abortion continues to be the most salient issue of our time, and research surrounding abortion policy has shown how each side continues to maneuver the system, she said.

"I don't see that changing," Doan said. "For example, we have learned that after losing Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion activists don't see abortion as an issue resolved unless it is re-criminalized."

Photo: U.S. Supreme Court building via Flickr (U.S. Government Work)


Ruth DeWitt, Communications Manager
KU School of Public Affairs and Administration
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