The Washington Post reports today that antiabortion forces in Congress are launching a new effort to ban mifipristone, the medicine that allows women to have nonsurgical abortions extremely early in pregnancy.

The rhetoric from the abortion prohibitionists is all about safety: mifipristone, they claim, has caused death for four to eight young women. They’re calling their proposal to prohibit it “Holly’s Law” to honor one of these women.

But such arguments are Big Lie propaganda: they are memorable and plausible, but they are utterly false. Their real purpose is to advance another, less popular agenda.

The antidote to Big Lie is Big Truth: Mifipristone is safe, and the prohibitionists’ real goal is to prevent American women from having wider access to a very safe, very confidential way to end unwanted pregnancies—and to the end them very, very early in pregnancy.

Let’s take these points in turn.

  • 1. As pregnancy-related things go, mifipristone is very safe. It’s at least five times safer than Viagra, as the libertarian policy journal Reason notes. And it’s at least as safe as surgical abortion, which itself is twelve times safer than childbirth. (The cynicism of “Holly’s Law” is transparent here: There’s no bill in Congress named for one of the more-numerous women who die in childbirth. If all these Congresspeople cared about was putting safety first, they’d do everything they could to help women prevent unwanted pregnancies through contraception and to get any abortions they choose to have as early in pregnancy as possible, when they are safest.)

    2. In all likelihood, medical (or medicine-induced) abortion is actually safer than surgical abortion: several of the four to eight deaths ostensibly caused by mifipristone will almost certainly prove to have been caused by something else. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are studying a virulent strain of bacteria that on extremely rare occasions infects pregnant women for unknown reasons.

    3. Mifipristone (which is commonly referred to by an earlier version’s laboratory nickname RU-486) has the potential to decentralize abortion, moving it out of specialized abortion clinics and into thousands of physicians’ offices, making it more confidential. And that change would deny the prohibitionists the lightening rods around which they organize their grassroots campaigns and media events. Already, almost one-fifth of mifipristone sales are made to medical care providers not associated with an abortion clinic, as the Guttmacher Institute notes (large pdf, see page 18).

    4. Mifipristone makes abortion less morally objectionable— and therefore less politically tractable—because it helps to move abortion to the very beginning of pregnancy. And, Supreme Court rulings about trimesters and viability aside, most people’s moral compasses tell them that, when it comes to abortion, the earlier the better.

    The near-tripling of medical abortions in the United States, from 9 percent of eligible women in 2001 to 24 percent in 2004, has contributed to a massive and little-discussed “forward shift” of abortion. When Roe v. Wade made abortion legal throughout the United States in 1973, scarcely one-fifth of abortions happened in the first eight weeks of gestation. Now, three-fifths do. Perhaps more impressive, in excess of 25 percent of US abortions now come in the first six weeks of gestation. (Guttmacher again, [pdf, see page 16]).

    What’s gestation? By convention, pregnancy—or gestation—is measured from the first day of the previous menstrual period, not from the moment of conception or of implantation in the uterine lining. (Implantation, not conception, is the scientific and obstetric marker of pregnancy, because one-third to one-half of fertilized eggs do not implant.) So, abortions performed in the first six weeks of gestation actually interrupt pregnancies in the first four weeks since conception and, roughly, the first two weeks since the end of implantation. They abort embryos, not fetuses.

    Thanks to reliable and private pregnancy tests, mifipristone, and other innovations, more than a third of US providers now offer abortions in the first four weeks of gestation. Think about that: That’s before many women even miss a period; it’s within the first two weeks of conception; and during the process of implantation.

    This forward shift is exceptionally good news for most people, who believe that abortion is a woman’s choice but still have moral qualms about it. Abortion is not only getting rarer, it’s also getting safer and earlier. We should celebrate.

    But it’s exceptionally bad news for abortion prohibitionists, who see mifipristone taking away their political leverage. And that’s why they’re propagating this Big Lie.