Why it's so hard to fact check statements about abortion (and why it's important to do so)
Assigning a “truth rating” to various claims is the hardest thing we do here at Bama Fact Check. It’s often relatively easy to do a bit of research and pick apart a politician’s poorly researched statements. It’s much harder to get a group of editors together to decide whether those statements are (to paraphrase Mark Twain) lies, infernal lies, or statistics.
Our most recent fact check –- a look into a legislator’s claims about the safety of abortion inducing drugs –- presented us with the hardest “truth rating” decision we’ve ever faced.
The Alabama State Legislature is now considering a raft of bills designed to limit access to abortion statewide. One of those bills, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would pose new restrictions on the use of mifepristone – the abortion-inducing pill once known as RU-486. The bill’s text includes a number of claims about mifepristone, including that it poses a “significant risk” to women’s health.
The words aren’t Allen’s. As Anniston Star reporter Brian Anderson discovered, the wording of the bill was lifted, almost completely intact, from model legislation proposed by Americans United for Life, a pro-life group based in Washington D.C.
Anderson set out see if there was any truth to the bill’s claims about the safety (or lack thereof) of mifepristone. He tried to contact Allen, and got no response -– after four days of trying. Then he contacted the bill’s true authors: the folks at Americans United for Life. They responded to his questions by repeatedly emailing the same set of boiler-plate answers.
The response from pro-choice side was better, but not by much. State-level abortion rights organizations wouldn’t talk about the issue. Nationwide organizations did, but only after mulling the matter for days.
Keep in mind that Anderson wasn’t asking The Big Abortion Question. He was asking about a couple of seemingly simple things. How does the scientific community define “significant risk,” and does mifepristone pose such a risk?
Yet seemingly unbiased sources on the topic gave Anderson the cold shoulder. Doctors and professors in pharmacy colleges and medical schools did not respond to messages about the question. The FDA’s legislative branch didn’t respond to Anderson’s inquiries.
Now, at Bama Fact Check, we’ve always observed a certain amount of gamesmanship when assigning truth ratings. If a politician makes a claim, he or she should be willing to provide documentation to support that claim. If the politician doesn’t support the claim, and the opponent does make a sound case, the judgment goes against the politician.
In other words: back up what you say, or we’ll call you a liar.
Sen. Allen didn’t provide information to back up his bill’s claims about abortion-inducing drugs. The bill’s real authors did only slightly better. On that account alone, we were prepared to rank his statement about “significant risk” as a falsehood.
But there’s more to this story than rhetoric. There’s a real world, beyond word games, in which women actually face the choice of taking mifepristone or not taking it. The question of whether a drug is safe or unsafe is a question that matters in real-world terms. And the fact is, after days of trying to get a straight answer out of people who are in the know on such matters, we really didn’t feel any closer to an answer about mifepristone, about what “significant” risk means, or about whether that risk, if it exists, is worth taking.
The editors of Bama Fact Check weren’t born yesterday. We know why it’s so hard to get people to talk on sensitive subject. The abortion issue settled into trench warfare years ago, with Americans in opposing camps and no middle ground except a wasteland.
But the risks and rewards of mifepristone are testable, falsifiable claims that should, by all rights, be checkable. Because out there, there are a number of women who need and deserve straight facts on this issue.
There are facts that we do know. We know that mifepristone is approved by the FDA. That doesn't guarantee its safety, but the FDA's approval is something most Americans as trustworthy.
For us, this dilemma is an illustration of the need for Bama Fact Check, and the need for journalism in general. People in power, on both sides of the political aisle, profit from keeping a tight control on information. By fudging facts and hiding sources, people in power force everyone else into the prisoner’s dilemma, in which every decision is based on guesswork and fear.
And when information is shared freely, it’s the individual human being who profits. She profits by having the information she needs to make a rational decision.
Now that our article is out, we expect an onslaught of responses from both sides of the abortion debate. We hope those responses will include some real data. We hope people on both sides of the aisle will point to real, documented evidence to support their positions on mifepristone and how it should be administered.
It’s about time somebody did that.