Population Health

January 23, 2024

Untangling abortion misinformation and its impacts on healthcare providers

Hands type on a laptop with a stethoscope visible in the foregroundOn June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. With federal protections gone, states became free to determine whether to restrict or protect abortion access, which has led to a number of new laws and regulations.

At the same time, misinformation surrounding abortion care began to flourish and has influenced the way that healthcare providers, abortion advocates and abortion-seeking patients perceived this highly stigmatized process.

To explore the impact of this misinformation, Dr. Rachel Moran, a research scientist at the University of Washington Center for an Informed Public, and her research team were awarded a Population Health Initiative Tier 1 Pilot Grant in spring 2023 to examine the influence abortion myths have on the work of abortion healthcare providers and other health professionals from related fields in the Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho (WWAMI) region.

“This last year created a really fragmented environment, where some states were making big decisions to limit access to abortion care. These big moments in time create uncertainty for people, under which misleading information can really thrive,” said Moran. “We wanted to understand how this trickles down and impacts people in their attempts to give or get abortion-related care.”

Other UW investigators include Dr. Anna Lee Swan (Information School), Dr. Amanda Lock Swarr (Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies), Taylor Agajanian (Center for an Informed Public), Izzi Grasso (Information School), Anna Beers (Human Centered Design & Engineering) and Dr. Emma Spiro (Information School).

The research team’s initial step focused on building a research agenda, which provided background on the current state of knowledge in communication, information science and related fields about false information surrounding abortion. The information uncovered was then used to shape the secondary, and current, phase of the research — conducting a needs assessment.

A needs assessment is a methodical process that determines what is required to get from the current situation to a desired outcome. The research team is interviewing healthcare practitioners and reproductive rights advocates across the five-state WWAMI region, asking them to reflect on their recent experiences. “We’re asking them, ‘How have your patient interactions been going, especially within the last year? What are you seeing out there? Are people getting good information? How has this impacted care?’” said Moran.

These initial conversations have highlighted the influence of the internet. “What we have found is that people are going online to find information. Their first port of call is often Google. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, it does require a certain level of media literacy for people to assess whether that information is correct or accurate,” explained Moran.

“Abortion has always been a historically highly charged topic with people having a lot of very strong opinions. There’s a lot of stigma around getting an abortion, so there’s also not a good level of public knowledge,” added Moran. This environment opens the door for misinformation to thrive, only increasing the difficulty in accessing accurate abortion information.

After completing their interviews, the researchers will analyze the transcripts to find patterns and common themes about abortion misinformation between responses. The information obtained from this analysis will then be used to develop future interventions that will bolster medical information literacy and disrupt false narratives about abortion care.

“Some of this information is new, some of it isn’t. When you’re a researcher within a particular discipline, you tend to focus on a specific part of the problem. Legal scholars focus on the legal framework and medical practitioners focus on providing safe and effective medical care,” said Moran. “But the bit we’re trying to provide is working across different disciplines to bring together all these different puzzle pieces about abortion myths and misinformation. That’s the new part.”

Although the project is ongoing, Moran acknowledges how much the research team has gained from this opportunity. “This has been a really great experience and has helped us to disentangle some of the good information from misinformation. Our team has already learned a lot,” concluded Moran.