Medication abortion reporting overshadows misinformation, report finds

By: - June 15, 2023 1:01 pm
A collection of orange mifepristone boxes, a pill used to induce abortions.

Packages of Mifepristone tablets are displayed at a family planning clinic on April 13, 2023 in Rockville, Maryland. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Disinformation on social media about abortion medication peaked in November after the midterm elections and a lawsuit challenging its federal approval, but accurate media reporting about the pills overshadowed right-wing messaging this year, according to a new report shared first with States Newsroom.

For instance, 68% of social media posts that mentioned the two-drug regimen — mifepristone followed by misoprostol — spread inaccuracies about the common abortion method in late 2022, but news reporting outperformed disinformation by 179% this year, according to a report released by the nonprofit NARAL Pro-Choice America on Thursday.

“There is finally really compelling proof that the American public and journalists are not buying the lies of the anti-abortion lobby anymore,” Angela Vasquez-Giroux, NARAL’s vice president of communications and research, told States Newsroom. “For decades, they were given equal airtime and treated with equal credibility.”

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case last year, leading to a patchwork of abortion access across the nation. And months after that decision, an anti-abortion group sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over its approval of mifepristone.

“Despite the uptick in attacks on medication abortion care, the reproductive freedom movement succeeded in pushing back against attempts by anti-abortion bad actors to control the narrative,” the report stated.

Awareness of abortion medication increased

In May, 63% of Americans surveyed favored mifepristone access, while 35% opposed the pill and the rest had no opinion, according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday. In 2000, when mifepristone first hit the market, half of Americans supported the FDA’s approval of the drug, while 44% of Americans surveyed opposed it.

NARAL tracked medication abortion mentions on both social media and mainstream media sites from roughly October to May using an analytics tool called NewsWhip. Right-wing attacks on abortion medication spiked — 79% of Facebook posts and 94% of tweets contained errors about the safety of the pills in November, researchers found.

According to the nonprofit’s analysis, 63,100 of the 65,200 articles on medication abortion since Jan. 1 used “medically accurate language.” This coincided with an uptick in the abortion news cycle: In January, the government allowed pharmacies to apply for mifepristone certification, a move that led Democratic and Republican attorneys general to voice their respective support and opposition to the updated policy. Even Walgreens ended up in the crossfire when the chain said it would not distribute the drug in states where GOP attorneys general threatened legal action.

Biggest legal battle since Dobbs

Arguably the most important abortion-related litigation since the Dobbs case last June, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. Food and Drug Administration could upend medication abortion access, even in states that safeguard reproductive freedoms, reproductive rights experts say.

A barrage of misleading social media posts about abortion pills last fall coincided with the complaint filed in Amarillo, Texas, according to NARAL’s findings. On Nov. 18, Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group, sued the FDA, asking U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, a President Trump appointee, to revoke the agency’s 23-year-old approval of mifepristone.

Kacsmaryk ruled April 7 that the agency stonewalled abortion rights opponents’ earlier petitions against the drug and agreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments, based on suspect anecdotes from emergency room doctors, anti-abortion propaganda and cherry-picked data. He stayed his decision for about a week, and the case ended up at the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided to allow mifepristone to remain on the market while the appeals process played out in federal court.

Research from NARAL underscores the public’s interest in the high-profile lawsuit. Search terms related to medication abortion peaked on April 12 — fallout from Kacsmaryk’s ruling — and media reports on the case increased around the same time, leveling off around April 22, a day after the Supreme Court halted any immediate changes to mifepristone’s access.

‘More insidious and harder to stop’

“The anti-abortion movement began 2023 by ramping up medication abortion-related disinformation in the media by 502.9% compared to their efforts at the end of 2022. From February to March of 2023 alone, articles containing disinformation rose by 99%,” according to researchers.

LifeNews, for example, mis-contextualizes scientific reports and instead cites sources such as the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a nonprofit opposed to abortion rights, and PregnancyHelpNews, an anti-abortion blog, to parrot the movement’s talking points.

In a Feb. 10 post, LifeNews referenced an article from Live Action, which opposes abortion rights, that cited a July 2021 study in Contraception, a respected reproductive health journal. The anti-abortion sites included a finding that 6% of participants who took abortion pills ended up in the emergency room. The sites then compared that finding to the low number of complications from Tylenol.

But the posts failed to mention the Contraception report’s main result: Of the nearly 1,400 abortion pills mailed to telehealth patients from May 2016 to September 2020 — 83% of patients shared their outcomes — 95% of pregnancies were terminated without a procedure or trip to the ER.

As for the Tylenol and mifepristone comparisons, providers and abortion rights proponents have indeed compared the two medications. But drug safety experts avoid comparing drugs. Instead, they look at alternatives to a given regimen, according to a New York Times analysis of over 100 scientific studies on abortion pills. University of California, San Francisco, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research cited by the Times found that medication abortion is safer than surgical abortions or childbirth.

“Social media attempts are more insidious and harder to stop,” said Vasquez-Giroux of NARAL, but “for every person who is advancing these narratives and lies on Facebook, there are dozens more responding with accurate information.”

A decision from the appellate court is pending, after a three-judge panel on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana appeared skeptical of the government’s defense of mifepristone during arguments in May. Before the Supreme Court weighed in, the appeals court rolled back availability of the abortion drug to pre-2016 regulations, limiting its use to seven weeks of pregnancy, among other restrictions.

Whatever the decision, experts say the case will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.

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Elisha Brown
Elisha Brown

Elisha Brown is the Reproductive Rights Today newsletter author at States Newsroom. She is based in Durham, North Carolina, where she previously worked as a reporter covering reproductive rights, policy, and inequality for Facing South. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, and Vox. She attended American University in Washington, D.C. and was raised in South Carolina.