After Facebook removed a fact-check from an anti-abortion activist’s video, doctors are warning of the dangers of putting politics over evidence when it comes to health care.
A team of doctors working with fact-checking group Health Feedback on Aug. 30 determined a video from Live Action founder Lila Rose, which falsely claimed that abortion is never medically necessary, to be inaccurate and misleading. Facebook notified people who had shared the video that it contained false information, and a link to the fact-check appeared next to the video.
That changed Wednesday after outrage from Rose and her supporters. Four Republican senators sent a letter to Facebook, accusing the company of bias against conservatives and the fact-checkers of pushing a pro-abortion agenda. Facebook then removed the fact-check while the independent International Fact-Checking Network reviews if it violated any of its principles.
Taking down the fact-check while it’s investigated is a reasonable step, one of the fact-checkers, Dr. Daniel Grossman, told BuzzFeed News in an email, but he added Rose’s video should also come down in the meantime. As of Thursday, it remained on Facebook without any indication that multiple doctors had found it to be false, based on scientific evidence and mainstream medical practices.
“Abortion access is critical to women’s health. This type of misinformation aims to undermine this fact and stigmatizes those who need this care,” Grossman said. “In the case of abortions that are medically necessary, there is a risk that patients may delay life-saving care if they believe the misinformation.”
Grossman is an obstetrics and gynecology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, where he also does research on topics related to public health and abortion. As a medical doctor, he’s also performed abortions — experience that Rose and the Republican senators said should disqualify him from fact-checking the video.
“I was asked to weigh in on a medical question, not a political one,” Grossman said, adding he has treated women who develop life-threatening conditions during pregnancy. “That doesn’t make me biased — it makes me a well-informed expert. If the question were about cardiac care, we would expect the answer to come from a well-respected cardiologist, and this should be no different.”
The letter sent by Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Kevin Cramer, and Mike Braun also singled out Dr. Robyn Schickler, who fact-checked the video and is a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, a group that works to promote access to health care, including contraception and abortion.
“I was using my education and experience caring for thousands of women as an OB/GYN to correct some medical misinformation. Misinformation that can be incredibly harmful,” Schickler told BuzzFeed News in an email. “The facts are clear about this: abortion can be medically necessary.”
She added she’s now being harassed just for doing what she considers as part of her duty as a doctor.
“I’ve been harassed on Twitter for stating facts and called out by senators who have political agendas,” she said. “I don’t have a political agenda. I’m an advocate because it’s part of a physician’s job to advocate for the health and well-being of our patients.”
Facebook’s removal of the fact-check, a decision made after the complaints of Republican senators, prompted concerns from doctors and reproductive health experts, who said fact-checking should be led by experts, not politicians.
“It is very concerning that a letter from a group of senators can silence the voices of medical and scientific experts,” Grossman said. “This sets a precedent where politics matter more than scientific evidence.”
And pro–abortion rights group NARAL said Facebook’s action was a disservice to women.
“Anti-choice extremists are seeking special treatment to promote their lies. The companies that cave to them do a disservice to women seeking accurate information about pregnancy and abortion,” National Communications Director Kristin Ford said in a statement. “The science on abortion is clear. Extremists who believe in blocking a woman’s ability to make her own decisions about her life and her future, free from political intervention, should not control our public debates.”
Other doctors and advocates weighed in on Twitter. Dr. Jennifer Gunter, an OB-GYN who also contributed to the fact-check, called out Rose and other anti-abortion advocates with specific scenarios where an abortion would be necessary.
She urged Facebook to listen to doctors over politicians.
Others agreed, urging Facebook to side with science and experts.
In a statement Wednesday, Facebook did not address criticism of the decision but said it has been “in touch with the IFCN which has opened an investigation to determine whether the fact checkers who rated this content did so by following procedures designed to ensure impartiality.”