.- A dispute has developed between Facebook fact checkers and a pro-life group about whether abortion is ever medically necessary. One philosophy professor suggested the key to resolving the discussion lies in a clear definition of abortion.
“I think the inherent ambiguity of ‘abortion’ – the gap between its medical and social meanings – gets used as a tool to muddy up the debate,” said Dr. Angela Knobel, a philosophy professor at The Catholic University of America.
In recent weeks, the investigative pro-life group Live Action has raised objections, after it was penalized by Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program.
Through a program launched in December 2016, Facebook uses more than 54 third-party fact-checking partners, who label content that they determine to be false or misleading. The fact-checkers must be certified through a non-partisan fact-checking network.
Pages that consistently publish or share information marked as “false” by fact-checkers are penalized with a reduction in their reach and the loss of the ability to advertise.
On Aug. 30, Live Action was informed that a video it had created and posted was labeled “false” by fact checkers, and that the distribution of their posts would be lowered as a result.
According to Live Action, the video featured a neonatal-perinatal physician and had been flagged as false because it made the claim that “abortion is never medically necessary.”
On the same day, Health Feedback, a website operated by Science Feedback, one of Facebook’s six U.S. fact-checking partners, published a feedback review of Live Action’s claim.
The Health Feedback review pulled from a website operated by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, which defines abortion as “a procedure to end a pregnancy. It uses medicine or surgery to remove the embryo or fetus and placenta from the uterus.”
The review charges that Live Action “redefines the meaning of abortion to exclude the cases when abortion is medically necessary,” in order, it said, to claim that abortion is not actually necessary.
The review cites the example of an ectopic pregnancy, in which an embryo implants outside the uterus. The embryo is unable to survive in this situation, which is also life-threatening to the mother if not promptly removed.
Live Action says that in such a case, removing the fallopian tube or a portion of it, is not an abortion because, although it results in the death of the unborn child, it does not have as its goal the death of the child.
Knobel said the debate essentially comes down to definitions.
Live Action defines abortion as “the intentional killing of a preborn child.” In some cases when a medical emergency arises, the group says, it may be necessary to induce labor early, when the baby has little – or even no – chance of survival. But this differs from abortion, Live Action says, because the death of the baby is not intended, but rather accepted as an undesired outcome of treating the mother’s medical condition.
This distinction is important, Knobel said, because how one defines abortion determines whether one believes it is ever medically necessary.
“Live Action is referring correctly to the social meaning the term abortion has taken on — the direct, intentional killing of a pre-born child,” she said. In contrast, the Facebook fact checkers are “referring to the technical medical definition, and according to the very old, very technical, non-social medical definition, ‘abortion’ actually is sometimes medically necessary.”
Knobel suggested that the difference in the definitions can cause confusion.
“The medical meaning gets used as a tool to insist that what conservatives want will kill and oppress women,” she said. “Because when people read headlines, it’s the social, not the medical meaning of abortion they assume. So they come away believing that abortion (understood socially) is necessary for women’s health, when of course that’s not true.”
Live Action objected to the August fact-check, saying the doctors who carried it out also performed abortions, and that one is a board member of the pro-abortion group NARAL. Live Action said it is a violation of Facebook policy for fact-checkers to advocate on the issues they fact check.
On Sept. 12, Live Action founder Lila Rose said Facebook had removed the page violations and was investigating the matter. Rose said that Live Action could still face future penalties pending the result of that investigation.
But as pro-life legislation moves forward at both a state and federal level, the debate over definitions is not over. Knobel stressed that wording is important in preserving the legality of life-saving procedures that do not intend to end a human life.
For example, she said, a woman may spontaneously miscarry, but her body does not naturally expel the baby, and a dilation-and-curettage procedure is necessary to remove the baby’s body.
This is similar to the dilation-and-evacuation procedure commonly used in second trimester abortions. Using the procedure to remove the remains of already-deceased baby may fall under some technical definitions of abortion, but would not match the social definition of abortion, Knobel said.
A 2015 Oklahoma law currently being challenged in court bans dilation-and-evacuation abortions. But the text of the legislation explicitly clarifies that a procedure intending to save an unborn child’s life, or to remove the body of a dead unborn child, is not considered an abortion under the law.
This type of clarification is important to avoid confusion, Knobel said.
“[I]f our efforts ever succeed, we need to make sure we don’t make laws the prohibit things we don’t actually intend to prohibit.”