Is abortion ever medically necessary? Second-guessing AP Fact Check

When AP Fact Check looked at the question of whether abortion ever counts as medically necessary, we found its reasoning of a kind with the Health Feedback/Science Feedback fact check we panned back in 2019. Both fact checks equivocated on the key term “abortion,” and AP Fact Check went further by failing to identify key sources.

The Equivocation Game

In both flawed fact checks the fact checkers traded “abortion” understood as “elective abortion” for an ill-defined concept of medical abortion. AP Fact Check offered four takes on the definition of “abortion”:

  1. “A procedure to end a pregnancy before a fetus is developed enough to survive outside the womb is defined as an abortion regardless of the reasoning behind it.”
  2. “abortion — meaning the termination of a pregnancy”
  3. “in medical literature, ‘abortion’ refers to the termination of a pregnancy for any reason, according to Dr. Louise P. King”
  4. “‘is a term that we use for disruption of any pregnancy regardless of where it is'”

All four of AP Fact Check’s definitions ignore the definition of abortion the Associated Press (AP) uses when it employs the term “anti-abortion” to describe groups that refer to themselves as “pro-life.”

Why Not the Definition of ‘Abortion’ as it Occurs in ‘Anti-Abortion’?

Why would AP Fact Check settle on the medical definition of “abortion” to the exclusion of the definition it uses when it says “anti-abortion”? The fact check offers few clues for its preference and no clues regarding the exclusion. A neutral fact check should have dealt with the term “elective abortion” at some level. When the term “anti-abortion” occurs in the mainstream media stories using AP style, the term either refers to “elective abortion” or else they’ve been misleading us for decades about what elective abortion opponents believe.

The fact check’s final paragraph, though arguably an incoherent argument, seems the story’s best justification for preferring the medical definition:

“With legislators outlawing abortion, because that is a term that we use for disruption of any pregnancy regardless of where it is, it makes the treatment of patients who do show up with ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage or septic abortion very difficult to treat,” she [Emily Godfrey] said.

Fact checkers might explain to Godfrey and others the difference between elective abortion and the term she uses for “disruption of any pregnancy.” But we do not see that from AP Fact Check.

How Did the Original Claim Use ‘Abortion’?

For some reason, not every fact checker seems to recognize the importance of context in the interpretation of claims.

AP Fact Check offers the readers hardly more than “Trust us” in justification of its interpretation. The fact checkers did not specifically identify the entity making the claim. They attributed the claim to “an anti-abortion nonprofit.” They declined to name the nonprofit and failed to link to their source.

We somewhat understand fact checkers not wanting to link to a supposedly bad source of information, but the name of the source counted as an essential concrete detail. Zebra Fact Check used Twitter to contact the author, Ali Swenson, and ask about the source. During the wait for acknowledgment of the request, we tried hunting for it.

We searched for the full claim verbatim at the domain and obtained about two pages of hits. One exact match included Lila Rose’s name. Rose is affiliated with the nonprofit Live Action. Science Feedback sourced its version of the fact check to Rose. Perhaps AP Fact Check used the same source?

Live Action

The links we found led to destinations that did little to identify the source of the claims, so we went to Live Action’s Facebook page. We scrolled down and finally found a post with a warning label.

We captured images of the censored post, the reason Facebook/Meta gave for censoring the post and the original uncensored version.

The original image claimed “Abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of the mother.” We took that as confirmation we had found AP Fact Check’s source.

Was Live Action’s claim false? That would appear to depend on the operative definition of “abortion.” We found the text of the post, which Facebook did not bother to censor, the bigger problem in this case: “If you are experiencing pregnancy complications and your doctor tells you that abortion is necessary, find a new doctor.” If the doctor used “abortion” in a different sense than the sense meant for the claim “abortion is never medically necessary,” then confusion may result over the equivocal language.

Clear definitions used consistently serve as the antidote to equivocal language.

Unfortunately, fact checkers often lack that antidote and instead prescribe more equivocal language as their solution.

Thanks in part to AP Fact Check’s work, Facebook censors the substantially true meme but not the post text that creates the most confusion.

AP Fact Check’s Ill-Defined Medical Definition

We asserted that Science Feedback and AP Fact Check used ill-defined meanings for “abortion.” What did we mean by that?

Consider the second definition from the list of four AP used: “abortion — meaning the termination of a pregnancy.” Does termination mean the end of the mother’s pregnant condition? Or does it refer to the termination (killing) of the embryo/fetus? If the former, then why don’t we consider live birth via cesarean section or induced labor abortion procedures? Both bring about the end of pregnancy.

Why use a definition that turns things we do not consider “abortions” into abortions?

The focus of elective abortion falls on stopping the development of the fetus, not on ending the pregnancy. “Abortion” understood as “elective abortion” captures that focus far better than does the medical definition.

‘Pro-Life’ Organizations Tend To Oppose Elective Abortion

When we critiqued Science Feedback’s fact check of Lila Rose, we found Rose specifically defined “abortion” as elective abortion. That definition comports with the mission of those who oppose abortion on the grounds that it kills innocent life.

In contrast, applying the term “anti-abortion” to the same movement, as the Associated Press does, makes for an absurd result using the AP Fact Check definition. Do anti-abortionists oppose ending a pregnancy for any reason, including for the purpose of delivering a healthy baby? No, they do not. Activists like Lila Rose explicitly say they do not oppose treatment of an ectopic pregnancy. How does AP Fact Check justify calling these activists “anti-abortion” if it considers ectopic pregnancy treatment abortion?

People forced to wear the label “anti-abortion” have a right to define what it is they oppose. It is not the job of fact checkers, including AP Fact Check, to assume that responsibility.

How AP Fact Check Failed

AP Fact Check did not base its judgment on a contextualized reading of the claim “abortion is never medically necessary.” It justified its judgment based on the words in the meme image alone. A fact checker needs to consider the range of definitions before deciding its interpretation. Instead, AP Fact Check passed over definitions such as that offered by the Oxford Advanced American Dictionary. The second definition that dictionary offers closely matches the one “pro-life” advocates favor: “a medical operation to end a pregnancy so that the baby is not born alive.” That definition suggests the operation has the demise of the fetus as its aim, as with the term “elective abortion.”

AP Fact Check made no apparent effort to interpret “abortion” in context, instead simply looking for statements to contradict the one in the meme image (bold emphasis added):

But doctors told The Associated Press that there are many circumstances in which abortion — meaning the termination of a pregnancy — can be medically necessary.

“Without question, abortion can be medically necessary,” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said in a 2019 statement after similar claims spread online. “There are situations where pregnancy termination in the form of an abortion is the only medical intervention that can preserve a patient’s health or save their life.”

The fact checkers executed a textbook example of the fallacy of equivocation: “a specific word or phrase in an argument is used with more than one meaning.”

AP Fact Check took a claim made using one sense of “abortion” and judged it false using a different sense of “abortion.”

Is Abortion Ever Medically Necessary?

Using AP Fact Check’s flawed definition of “abortion,” of course abortion is medically necessary to save the life of the mother. If the developing fetus never leaves the womb, both it and the parent are doomed.

Having found the source of the claim despite the lack of help from the fact checkers, we can say the use of “abortion” in the pictured meme was consistent with its use as a substitute for “elective abortion.”

We know of no example of a medically necessary elective abortion. Each would-be counterexample offered in the fact check relied on equivocation. Indeed, the term “elective abortion” seems to rule out a medical purpose by definition.

Proof one way or another depends first on the specific definition of “abortion” and whether an example exists of a medically necessary application of that type of “abortion.”

AP Fact Check used an equivocal definition of “abortion” and therefore produced a failed fact check.

Correction notice July 25, 2022: We inadvertently published this item with a publish date about a week earlier than its true publish date. With this update we’ve changed the publish date to match the tweet that accompanied its publication (July 23, 6:54 p.m.).

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