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Doctors and advocates tackle a spike of abortion misinformation – in Spanish

Misinformation about abortion targeting Latinas is spreading online.
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Getty Images/Westend61
Misinformation about abortion targeting Latinas is spreading online.

Just after news leaked in May that the Supreme Court planned to overturn Roe v. Wade, Liz Lebrón and her colleagues noticed something unusual: a spike in false and misleading information on abortion being shared in Spanish on social media.

"Abortion was not really on our radar," says Lebrón, who oversees research for the Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab. "Then after the leak it started popping up, and it has not slowed down."

The lab, a project from the national voter registration organization Voto Latino and the progressive group Media Matters for America, was launched in 2021 to combat COVID-19 disinformation and election falsehoods targeting Latinos.

Lebrón says the misinformation she's seeing runs the gamut — from posts that say abortion is no longer legal in a state where in fact it remains legal, to those that falsely say the procedure is not safe and can lead to harm or death. The falsehoods are being shared by accounts with tens of thousands of followers, she says.

Abortion is safe and an essential component of comprehensive health care, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. With Roe struck down as of June 24, individual states determine abortion access — and abortion is currently legal in a majority of U.S. states.

According to Lupe Rodríguez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, community members commonly see messages on the social media platforms WhatsApp and Facebook, where policing for misinformation in Spanish frequently falls short.

And this misinformation isn't just spreading on social media.

In recent months, doctors and reproductive rights advocates say they've seen a surge in abortion-related misinformation repeated in conversations among the Latino communities they serve. Some worry that this onslaught of false messages may discourage pregnant Latinas from seeking medical care when they need it — even in places where abortion remains legal.

"We're hearing it from community activists on the ground. We're hearing it from allies who we work with in the field," says Rodríguez, who spearheads a network of community activists in Florida, Texas, Virginia and New York.

Rodríguez says not all of the incorrect information is being spread with malicious intent: Laws are changing in many states, and some people are just sharing rumors that they think are true.

"People are confused about what the laws are in their own state or where they can go for information or health care," Rodríguez says. "And that is making it much easier to spread misinformation."

However, she and others say that abortion rights opponents are capitalizing on the confusion by deliberately putting out falsehoods.

Lebrón says some of the disinformation she has encountered seems deliberately designed to galvanize voters.

She cites, for example, a social media post by a group called Floridanos con Marco (Floridians with Marco) that targets Rep. Val Demings, the Democratic candidate for Senate running against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida. The post falsely claims that Demings supports funding abortions with taxpayer money until the moment of birth. "And it's like, oh, goodness," Lebrón says. In fact, Demings supports the right to abortion up to the viability of the fetus, which doctors generally put at about 24 weeks of pregnancy.

Polls show abortion has risen in importance among Latino voters in recent months. A majority of Latino voters support the right to a legal abortion, but others don't or are on the fence. Lebrón says some of the disinformation aims to sway voters seen as up for grabs.

Other deliberate falsehoods, Lebrón says, "are designed to dissuade people from seeking the [abortion] care that they need."

Ena Suseth Valladares, director of programs at California Latinas for Reproductive Justice, says her group has traced some abortion disinformation to crisis pregnancy centers located in low-income immigrant Latino communities in the state. She says these centers sometimes help people sign up for food assistance or provide free diapers or formula, but their mission is to prevent abortions by persuading women to carry their pregnancies to term.

Valladares says she's heard from Latino community members who visited crisis pregnancy centers and were told that if they got an abortion, it could raise their risk of future infertility, which is not true, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists. Surveys have found that crisis pregnancy centers frequently make claims falsely linking abortion to adverse health effects.

"That's how the rumor starts," Valladares says. "And then that community member takes it to other family members and friends."

Dr. Melissa Simon, a Latina ob-gyn at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, says widespread disinformation is creating fear among the Spanish-speaking Latina patients who come to her seeking abortions. Even though Illinois is an abortion safe haven, she says patients have told her they fear that getting the procedure will result in legal jeopardy.

"I see patients that are fearing the repercussions of getting an abortion not to just themselves, but to their family and loved ones," she says.

Simon says she recently saw a pregnant teenager who came to see her with her mother, who is an undocumented immigrant. The daughter was scared that if she got an abortion, it might somehow end up getting her mother detained or even deported.

Simon is concerned that such fears will keep people from seeking medical care when they need it — for example, if they're having complications from a medication abortion or from an ectopic pregnancy that puts their life at risk. She's worried that could result in more pregnancy-related deaths for Latinas, which have risen in recent years.

"When you're trying to care for somebody, this rampant disinformation and preying on the most vulnerable populations that we have — people who already have low resources and fear — this is a real problem," Simon says.

Advocates are combating the flood of disinformation. For example, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice hosts livestreams with updates on abortion news and trains local organizers on how to counter word-of-mouth and digital misinformation in their communities.

As for Simon, she's tackling the problem one patient at a time. "It's really important that we arm our patients and their loved ones with accurate health information," she says, "because that's how it spreads through the network."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Maria Godoy
Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.