How Medical Misinformation on Fertility and Reproductive Health is Hurting Women – and how to Support Women

How Medical Misinformation on Fertility and Reproductive Health is Hurting Women – and how to Support Women

By: Morgan Foster, Junior Fellow | Women’s Public Policy Network

Women have been disproportionately hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic, from losing their jobs or risking their lives on the frontline, to providing unpaid care work for children and family members, to experiencing an increase in gender-based violence, and facing barriers accessing health care services. With these additional stressors and responsibilities, the last thing women need is medical misinformation, but there is so much circulating in the media, online, and in politics. This medical misinformation seems to target women’s fertility and reproductive rights particularly.

“Health pandemics can make it more difficult for women and girls to receive treatment and health services.” -UN

Vaccine Misinformation

When vaccines started to roll out, a false report surfaced saying the COVID-19 vaccine would hurt women’s fertility. This myth spread when the fact is the COVID-19 vaccine will not affect fertility. Instead, the vaccine teaches the body’s immune system to fight the virus.

“Confusion arose when a false report surfaced on social media, saying that the spike protein on this coronavirus was the same as another spike protein called syncitin-1 that is involved in the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy. The false report said that getting the COVID-19 vaccine would cause a woman’s body to fight this different spike protein and affect her fertility. The two spike proteins are completely different and distinct, and getting the COVID-19 vaccine will not affect the fertility of women who are seeking to become pregnant, including through in vitro fertilization methods.” -Johns Hopkins

Following this myth, women who want to get pregnant now or in the future have received inaccurate information to avoid the vaccine. When instead, they should have been encouraged to get the vaccine, especially before getting pregnant, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, “pregnant and recently pregnant people are more likely to get severely ill with COVID-19 compared with non-pregnant people.” 

This is not only dangerous and potentially life-threatening for pregnant women, but it is also dangerous for their pregnancies. The CDC also reports that “pregnant people with COVID-19 are at increased risk of preterm birth and might be at increased risk of other adverse pregnancy outcomes compared with pregnant women without COVID-19.”

As of August 11, 2021, the CDC says that people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, trying to get pregnant now, or might become pregnant in the future should get the COVID-19 vaccine. This comes after months of the CDC saying that based on how the vaccines work, they believed it was unlikely to pose a risk for people who are pregnant, lactating, or their breastfeeding babies. 

“Women and girls have unique health needs, but they are less likely to have access to quality health services, essential medicines and vaccines, maternal and reproductive health care, or insurance coverage for routine and catastrophic health costs, especially in rural and marginalized communities. Restrictive social norms and gender stereotypes can also limit women’s ability to access health services. All of this has particular impacts during a widespread health crisis.”  -UN

Abortion Misinformation

Women in Ohio who are pregnant and seeking an abortion face different types of hurdles and medical misinformation. At the beginning of the pandemic, abortions were viewed as “nonessential” services and were temporarily halted by the Ohio Attorney General. This temporary ban did not hold up in court, leaving Ohio lawmakers looking to target abortions in other ways, revisiting other old, failed tactics.

House Bill 378, known as the “abortion reversal” bill, would require doctors to tell patients that it may be possible to reverse the effects of the medication abortion, despite the so-called abortion pill reversal treatment being unproven. While sponsors of the bill falsely claim the legislation is about providing science and medical information, it does just the opposite. These pills are not FDA approved or supported by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

“Claims regarding abortion “reversal” treatment are not based on science and do not meet clinical standards…So-called abortion “reversal” procedures are unproven and unethical.” -American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

A 2019 study of this method was suspended after women had to be hospitalized for severe vaginal bleeding. This lack of support is why the 2019 version of the bill did not get time or attention from Ohio lawmakers themselves. Even the anti-abortion group, Ohio Right to Life, called the study “at best morally questionable and [at] worst, coercive of these women who no doubt needed support when facing an unplanned pregnancy.”

Similar bills and temporary abortion halts are happening in many other states.

Medical Misinformation is Hurting Women

These abortion bills and COVID-19 vaccine myths encourage women to doubt themselves, doubt their doctors, and doubt healthcare services as a whole. 

Arguments that lawmakers use against the COVID-19 vaccine contradict supporting the abortion reversal bill. Instead of pushing the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine, lawmakers are pushing unsafe abortion reversal pills. While FDA approval is a sticking point for the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s not a concern for abortion reversal pills. Even though the abortion reversal pill study had to be suspended, meaning that women who take the pills are guinea pigs, lawmakers only try to make a guinea pig argument against the COVID-19 vaccine, which has gone through far more testing.

These contradictions are confusing and are leaving women in the crossfires. If we want to support women and women’s fertility and reproductive health, there are honest and proven ways to do it that keep the health and well-being of women as a priority. 

Supporting Women in Ohio

In Ohio, there are currently several proposed bills that would support women and women’s fertility and reproductive health. 

  • House Bill 142 would require Medicaid to cover doula services, which reduce racial disparities in birth outcomes. This bill would save the lives of women and babies, especially Black women and babies.
  • House Bill 42 would enact the “Save Our Mothers Act” to establish continuing education requirements for birthing facility personnel and an initiative to improve birth equity, reduce peripartum racial and ethnic disparities, and address implicit bias in the healthcare system.
  • House Bill 355 would authorize a pregnant minor to consent to receive health care to maintain or improve her life or the life of the unborn child she is carrying.
  • Senate Bill 137 would modify the laws governing the Pregnancy-Associated Mortality Review Board and require birthing facilities to report data on severe maternal morbidity.
  • Pregnancy Accommodations and Paid Family Leave are also essential ways to support women and families. Pregnancy accommodations would require employers to provide basic accommodations to pregnant women, such as a stool to sit on or allow them to have a water bottle. This helps ensure women have safe pregnancies and healthy babies. Paid family leave would help people keep their job and avoid going into debt while taking care of a baby or caring for a family member. The United States is the only industrialized country with no national paid family leave policy.

It’s time to stop the spread of medical misinformation surrounding women’s fertility and reproductive health and support what matters.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Morgan Foster is a Junior Fellow with the Ohio Women’s Public Policy Network. Morgan earned her BA and MBA from The University of Akron. She is currently in her last year of law school at The University of Akron and expects to graduate in May 2022. She currently holds board positions with both the Law Association for Women and the Student Bar Association. Additionally, she has been involved with The Center for Constitutional Law, Law Review, and the legal clinics. Foster is passionate about social justice and diversity and inclusion. She currently works as a Pro Bono Coordinator at the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.