Latinas are the targets of abortion misinformation. Providers and advocates are pushing back.

NBC News
·10 min read

Latinas who work in clinics and with organizations that are making abortions accessible after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade say they're increasingly having to counter abortion-related misinformation that can harm women and the larger communities the groups serve.

Misinformation spreaders have found ways to latch on to the national abortion conversation in English and in Spanish “to continue disseminating this misinformation at a more rapid pace,” said Susy Chávez of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice.

From false information about abortion criminalization in the U.S. to deceitful information about the lasting physical harm of abortions, the spread of misinformation has become even more rampant in the month since Roe was repealed, Chávez and others say.

Alyx Carrasquel, an intake coordinator for the Florida Access Network abortion fund, regularly speaks with pregnant people who have called for information or appointments.

Carrasquel said most of the people who contact her for help have been on the receiving end of misinformation about abortions being unsafe.

“People are thinking that their abortion is going to harm them or it’s going to put their lives at risk, when in reality it’s one of the safest medical procedures,” Carrasquel said.

Scientific research shows abortion procedures in the U.S. are safe and have few complications. The national case-fatality rate for legal abortions from 2013 to 2018 was very low, 0.41 deaths per 100,000 reported legal abortions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Carrasquel has also seen and heard anti-abortion rights protesters outside clinics spread misinformation about abortions causing breast cancer and infertility. Both have been discredited by decades of research.

But with nearly two dozen states working to make abortion inaccessible, Carrasquel said many Latinos she talks to are under the false impression that if the procedure is being outlawed, it must be because it's dangerous — many of them not taking into account the ideological, political or religious backdrop behind anti-abortion measures.

In Texas, misinformation's 'chilling' effect

Roe’s repeal opened the door for eight states, most of which are Republican-led, to implement abortion bans. Six states have restricted access to abortions but haven’t banned the procedure, and seven states have pending bans that could go into effect later in the year. Abortion remains legal in the remaining 29 states.

Differences in state laws have created “more dangerous” and “perverse” cycles of misinformation falsely claiming abortion is illegal in the whole country, Chávez said. “It really robs a person of their ability to make informed decisions,” she said.

Lupe Rodríguez, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, said that as legal challenges to states’ proposed abortion bans make their way through the courts, misinformation spreaders are “capitalizing on that confusion to spread misinformation about the legality of the procedure."

The most troublesome misinformation affecting Latinos in Texas concerns criminalization of abortion, she said. When the state passed a law to ban the procedure, it included a provision allowing private citizens to sue abortion providers or anyone else who may have helped people get abortions and seek thousands of dollars in damages.

Under the Texas law, people who get abortions wouldn’t be criminally prosecuted, but doctors who perform illegal abortions could be sentenced to life in prison or fined up to $100,000.

But the law’s facts aren’t what people are hearing, Rodríguez said.

“We’ve been hearing about folks being told that they could go to jail or if they help someone, they could go to jail. That, over anything else, really sends a chilling effect to the community,” she said. "It is very, very scary.”

Her organization has gotten reports from across the state that such misinformation has been spreading especially among communities with many undocumented Latinos.

Countering online falsehoods

The most recent Nielsen report on U.S. Latino audiences found they are more likely to receive, consume and share fake news and misinformation online compared to the general population.

Spanish-language misinformation on social media platforms continues to grow despite tech companies’ adoption of stricter content rules, the blocking of offending accounts and the addition of more moderators and context labels.

Latinos’ greater reliance on social media and messaging platforms, particularly encrypted ones such as WhatsApp, disproportionately exposes many to misinformation in both English and Spanish, according to the Nielsen report.

Against that backdrop, Carrasquel and co-executive director Stephanie Loraine Piñeiro at the Florida Access Network say they have been working to counter that particular type of online misinformation.

Piñeiro said her mission started in her home, when her mother asked her about misinformation she saw on Facebook about “late-term abortions,” a nonscientific term commonly used to refer to pregnancies terminated after 21 weeks.

Late-term abortions are rare; according to the CDC, less than 1 percent of abortions in 2019 were performed at or after 21 weeks of gestation. In contrast, nearly 93 percent were performed at or before 13 weeks.

The Facebook post repurposed former President Donald Trump’s previous claims that a New York law “would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth” and that babies were being killed after live births.

“It’s not true,” Piñeiro recalled telling her mother.

A factor that makes some Latinos more vulnerable is misinformation that resembles the realities in their countries of origin, because they may be more inclined to believe it.

Carrasquel recently helped a domestic worker from Brazil — where providers and abortion seekers are criminalized — get an appointment. Misinformation about the legality of abortion in the U.S., compounded by the worker’s perceptions based on laws in her homeland, had her believing she was going to be subjected to a “back-alley abortion.”

Carrasquel, who is trilingual, explained to the worker in her native Portuguese that it wouldn't be the case.

As in her conversation with the Brazilian woman, Carrasquel often finds herself explaining to patients that their appointments will be “at a clinic, a regular medical facility, where they’ll be well taken care of — I tell them everything’s going to be extremely safe, and it blows their minds."

"Back-alley” abortions, Carrasquel said, are unlikely as long as the procedure remains legal in some states where people can go. “That’s what abortion funds are there for.”

Tackling the 'outpacing' of crisis pregnancy centers

In California, anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, which are known to provide inaccurate or misleading information about abortions to pregnant people, outnumber abortion clinics by 20%.

About 40% of counties in California, where abortion is legal, don’t have abortion clinics.

Chávez, of California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, said the group grapples with the "outpacing" of crisis centers compared to clinics that provide a variety of reproductive health services, including abortion.

Crisis pregnancy centers, sometimes called CPCs, disproportionately attract low-income pregnant people and women of color by providing ultrasound imagery and other pregnancy-related services for free. Many don’t provide any kind of medical care, because they’re often run by religiously affiliated organizations “that operate with the goal of convincing people considering abortion to continue their pregnancies,” not licensed medical professionals, according to a study from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina that was published last year.

“Unlike abortion facilities, which provide counseling on all available pregnancy options, CPCs do not provide abortion care or referrals and often provide false information about the risk of abortion,” Alice Cartwright, a co-author of the study, said in a statement. “In reality, the risk of death from childbirth in the U.S., while low, is approximately 14 times that of an abortion.”

There are more than 2,500 crisis pregnancy centers across the U.S., compared to an estimated 1,600 abortion providers nationwide.

“Imagine you don’t have access to affordable health care, you’re pregnant and you see a sign for a free ultrasound place,” said Piñeiro, of the Florida Access Network. Latinos are the most uninsured racial and ethnic group in the country.

“It’s indoctrination when people are forced to hear religious information just to get free diapers for their kids or ultrasounds,” Piñeiro said. “They’re forced to listen to just lies about what abortion is and what it isn’t.”

In response to concerns, California Attorney General Rob Bonta issued a consumer alert warning residents that such centers don’t offer abortion services or comprehensive reproductive care.

Crisis pregnancy centers have multiplied over the past several years as many abortion clinics have struggled to remain open partly because of government funding cuts. In contrast, crisis pregnancy centers have received more government support over the same time, allowing them to not only remain operational, but also expand.

“I think that's one huge barrier” to abortion access, Rodríguez said.

The barriers to end a pregnancy often result in delays in receiving abortion care. Piñeiro said many patients sometimes start to question whether the hurdles are a “message from the universe or from whatever they believe in” that they shouldn’t be having an abortion.

“It’s not,” she said. “It’s literally the system interfering with their lives and their ability to make decisions about their bodies.”

Trying to 'correct the harm'

Anti-abortion rights activists protesting outside clinics are another source of misinformation, abortion rights advocates said.

Some protesters shout and carry signs claiming that women who get abortions will experience “abortion regret” or adverse mental health issues, Piñeiro said.

A recent Turnaway Study from demographer Diana Greene Foster, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of California San Francisco, found that women who had been denied abortion access experienced worse economic and mental health outcomes than women who had received care and that 95% of study participants who received abortions said they made the right decision.

Among the more common misinformation spread by anti-abortion rights protesters is that all abortion procedures are the same, Piñeiro said. “That impacts how people access reproductive health,” she said.

Medical abortions are performed up to around nine weeks of pregnancy using a combination of two medicines taken either orally or through the vagina. The medication is given by a health care provider and is taken either in the provider’s office or at home.

An in-clinic or surgical abortion is a medical procedure in which gentle suction is used to empty the uterus. It requires mild sedation. The procedure can be performed after 5 weeks of pregnancy.

A combination of incorrect information about abortion can easily fuel social stigma that often takes a mental health toll, Carrasquel said, adding that groups like hers try to provide truthful information about any procedures to end the stigma.

In Texas, particularly in the heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice has organized a network of Latinas "to become fountains of information” and trusted sources against misinformation.

The Florida Access Network has established a peer-support group in which people who have had abortions can connect and provide information about their experiences.

Chávez said California Latinas for Reproductive Justice is working on a bill to address the root causes of abortion misinformation aimed at Latino communities, proposing a task force that could issue recommendations and respond to false information with truthful campaigns.

Piñeiro said that in Florida, a lot of the work “is undoing the harm of misinformation and leaning into the complexities of life and that abortion is a decision that is multifaceted.”

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