The Myth of "Abortion Reversal" Is Making a Comeback — Here's Why It's Dangerous

On March 20, Idaho Governor Butch Otter signed a bill that will make the state the latest to require abortion providers to tell women that so-called "abortion reversal" is an option. The idea that an abortion can be "reversed" is a fabrication that's been peddled by foes of abortion for years on end. That's why it's not particularly surprising — but is particularly disturbing — that this dangerous, unproven theory continues to gain traction in a political climate hostile to women's rights. A New York Times Magazine feature published in July sparked a new round of conversation about this narrative that abortion opponents continue to push, and it's worthy of our attention, particularly because it is so deceitful and dehumanizing.

How the Abortion Pill Really Works

A medical abortion consists of a two-pill treatment, most widely known as Mifeprex or RU486: one pill causes the cervix to dilate and the uterus to shed its lining. A second pill, taken a few days later, causes contractions to terminate the pregnancy. Women are increasingly choosing the abortion pill; in fact, medication abortions made up 43 percent of all abortions provided at Planned Parenthood clinics in 2014, up from 35 percent in 2010. There are some distinct advantages to the abortion pill: it doesn't require an invasive procedure in a medical office, a woman can choose where to be and who to be with during the experience, and, because, it's biologically similar to a miscarriage, people often feel the process seems more natural than undergoing an abortion procedure.

How the Idea of "Abortion Reversal" Spread

The concept of abortion reversal has its roots in a 2012 report coauthored by San Diego physician George Delgado, who has continued to espouse his theory in the years since. The study was wildly flawed from both an ethical and scientific standpoint: it was a survey of only seven women total, being treated by a number of different doctors, and there was no control group. Delgado's own motivations also cast a shadow over the study; he is openly antiabortion himself. He says the impetus for the research was a call he got from LifeSavers Ministries, an antiabortion group, asking for advice from a young woman who reportedly changed her mind after taking the abortion pill. Was there any way to stop the process? Delgado came up with a theory and sought out a doctor willing to help him experiment to test whether it was true.

Delgado's report suggested that women can undergo a progesterone injection to thicken the lining of the uterus after taking the first pill in order to stop the abortion process. But a study published in medical journal Contraception in 2015 found that the first pill alone resulted in a complete abortion from 53 to 88 percent of the time, even if the second pill was not administered. Delgado's study remains the only one ever published on "abortion reversal," and it is purely anecdotal. In fact, the American Medical Association says there is no "credible, medical evidence" that abortion reversal works, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists insists there are "no reliable research studies that prove any treatment" can reverse the effects of a medical abortion.

How This Medical Myth Led to Several Antiwoman, Antiscience Laws

Despite the complete lack of scientific evidence — and common sense — suggesting that an abortion can be "undone," this irresponsible claim has done much to help undermine reproductive rights nationwide. Several states have passed laws that require doctors to tell women undergoing medical abortions that they can change their minds midway through the process — in other words, that they can "reverse" their abortions. Before Idaho, Utah's Governor Gary Herbert signed such a bill into law in 2017; his state joined South Dakota and Arkansas in instituting the legislation. (A similar abortion-reversal law passed in Arizona was struck down by the courts in 2016.)

Why Debunking This Myth Matters

Medical abortions are safe, legal procedures. Serious complications from RU486 are extremely rare, impacting fewer than one percent of women. Laws that promote junk science and force medical doctors to lie to women undermine patient rights, are unethical, and are condescending to grown women who have the ability — and the right — to make informed decisions about their own health care.

Doctors have widely pushed back against these unethical, unfounded laws. But there's a broader story the "abortion reversal" movement tends to ignore: as multiple studies have shown, the "problem" of women who choose to terminate a pregnancy being filled with regret and immediately seeking to "undo" an abortion is an extreme rarity. It plays into a common fear-mongering narrative about regret that antiabortion activists often perpetuate. In fact, recent research bears out that women who choose to abort feel "overwhelmingly" confident about the decision not only in the very short term, but also several years later. Unsurprisingly, the argument in favor of "abortion reversal" fails in the same way research on the method did: by relying on anecdotes and scare tactics rather than actual statistics or facts.

This story was updated on March 21, 2018, to include new updates on the Idaho bill.