Americans’ Knowledge Of Reproductive Health Is Limited

12:13 minutes

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As the nation awaits a momentous Supreme Court decision that could overturn or severely limit the 1973 Roe V. Wade opinion on abortion, a new poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation found serious gaps in Americans’ understanding of certain scientific aspects of reproductive health. 

For instance, the poll found that while medication abortion now accounts for more than half of all abortions in the U.S., fewer than three in ten U.S. adults (27%) say they have heard of the medication abortion pill known as mifepristone—though that number is up slightly from a 2019 poll, which found that 21% of adults had heard of the medication. And even among those who had heard of it, poll respondents were unsure over when and how it was used, or how to obtain the drug. 

Rachel Feltman, executive editor at Popular Science, joins John Dankosky to talk about the poll findings and other stories from the week in science—including an experimental drug for rectal cancer, an ancient jawbone of a polar bear, an EU ruling regarding charging ports for electronic devices, and a micrometeorite ding on the shiny mirror of the recently-launched JWST.

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Segment Guests

Rachel Feltman

Rachel Feltman is author of Been There, Done That: A Rousing History of Sex, and is the host of “The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.”

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Ira Flatow is away. This week, around of Supreme Court decisions came and went without the one that many people have been expecting, an opinion overturning the Roe versus Wade decision of 1973 that could allow states to impose abortion bans. But even as people prepare for a changed landscape with respect to reproductive rights, a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that many Americans don’t fully understand some of the areas that might be affected.

Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Rachel Feltman, Executive Editor at Popular Science. She’s also author of a recent book on human sexual history, Been There, Done That. Welcome back to Science Friday, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s talk about this poll from Kaiser Family Foundation. It covers a lot of topics around abortion and access and attitudes toward it. But one of the things that struck me was about medication abortion. It’s something that we’ve covered recently on the show. What did it find?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Unsurprisingly, but still very disappointingly, the poll found that a lot of adults in the US have not heard of mifepristone, which is the drug that’s used to induce medication abortion. Only around a quarter of US adults who were polled had heard of it. And that is especially upsetting when you realize that at this point, something like more than half of the abortions that occur in the US are medication abortions. And it wasn’t just that people hadn’t heard of this drug, but there were also a lot of misconceptions about how to access it and what it actually does.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It is really, really amazing. Almost everybody we talked to when we did a story a few weeks ago about this said, I didn’t know that it accounted for more than half of the abortions in America. Why do you think that there is this big knowledge gap, Rachel?

RACHEL FELTMAN: There are a lot of folks who just don’t come across information about abortion unless they are trying to access one. And of course, you don’t want any aspect of your health care to be something that you’re only learning about when you are stressed and trying to figure out how to access care. And yeah, with medication abortion specifically, we saw in this poll a lot of people thinking that you can get it without a prescription, which, unfortunately, is not true. So again, that’s something you really want people to know before they are trying to access an abortion.

There are also lots of people who very clearly confuse it with emergency contraception. That’s dangerous for a couple of reasons. I mean, for one thing, there does seem to be this knowledge gap where because people confuse medication abortion with emergency contraception like Plan B, they think it’s actually easier to access than it is.

Now in lots of states, you can access medication abortion through telemedicine, so you don’t need an in-person appointment. So it’s not difficult to access, but it does take some planning. You can’t just walk into a pharmacy and get it. And then on the other hand, we see in this poll a lot of folks who think that plan B and medication abortion are the same thing. And that’s really dangerous when we see laws that are trying to make abortion more difficult to access. There are people who think that Plan B, which you can get at the drugstore is capable of ending an early-stage pregnancy, and it is not. It is a contraceptive method, not a way to induce abortion.

And we see increasingly the same lawmakers who are trying to limit access to abortion trying to make the line between abortion and contraception blurrier. And we see methods like IUDs and emergency contraception being lumped in with termination. Now this is a great example of how ignorance around reproductive health care can mean that limiting abortion can also mean limiting contraception.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’re going to be following, of course, more reproductive rights stories in the weeks ahead. We’re going to turn to another health story, though. News this week about a small but potentially very important study of an experimental drug for rectal cancer. Tell us about this, Rachel.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So in this new study, which was an immunotherapy trial, people with a very unresponsive colorectal cancer cases had really stunning results. I believe it was 12 people in the trial, and of course, that is a very small group, so all of these findings come with the caveat that this is very preliminary in terms of how widely applicable the treatment could be.

But the success rates they saw were still just stunning in that the drug made tumors disappear in all 12 people, and two years later, none of those tumors had reemerged, and none of those patients had needed chemoradiation or surgery. And especially since colorectal cancer is on the rise in groups of young people who traditionally were thought to not really have to worry about high cancer risk, this is really exciting.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It is exciting, but a lot of caution here. This is a really, really small study.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, absolutely. And I think the reason it’s still so exciting is that a lot of people still talk about, quote-unquote, curing cancer, as if cancer is one thing. And it’s important to remember that really, it is an umbrella and we are going to need so many types of treatments and targeted treatments to really make cancer less of a death sentence and less of an impact on quality of life for all of the people who get all types of cancer.

JOHN DANKOSKY: In other news this week, there’s a milestone in climate change, but of course, not a very good one. CO2 levels are seemingly higher than ever.

RACHEL FELTMAN: And not surprising, but still disappointing, the latest data from NOAA shows that our CO2 levels are at 421 parts per million, which is up a little less than 2 parts per million from last year, and puts us at the highest CO2 levels since we started being able to record them in history. They’ve skyrocketed by like 50% since the late 19th century.

And we now match the balmy conditions of more than 4 million years ago. It was a great time to be a giant sloth. Not so great to be a human. Very high sea levels. Southern Florida was completely underwater. And that was a period of CO2 level and warming that had built up very slowly, and we have managed to just zoom right into it, which is not great.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s not great indeed. Moving on, when we talk about climate change, one of the usual poster animals is the polar bear. But there’s some new research. This week about the evolutionary history and relationships between bear species. This is interesting.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So what’s cool about polar bears and kind of a bummer about polar bears is that since they spend so much of their time on ice floes, we actually don’t have a lot of their bones to study when you try to get back in the fossil record, because they tend to end up on the bottom of the ocean. In 2004, these geologists in Svalbard found a 115,000-year-old jawbone that has been the source of a lot of insight into ancient polar bears and their evolution.

And so now we have this new really high-res DNA analysis. And it’s looking specifically at brown bears versus polar bears, because there’s been like a lot of debate among evolutionary biologists about how closely related they are. In fact, at times, it has been argued that they’re essentially the same species. So this study finally settles that debate and says no, they’re definitely very distinct. They did interbred a lot, and actually it was brown bears that contributed a bunch of genes to polar bears, not the other way around.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Hmm. Well, something that affects us all I’m sure. You never seem to have the right charger for your widget– for your phone or your iPad or whatever. It’s just like– for me, it’s just a tangle of white cables in a drawer. But there’s a new ruling in the European Union that might actually help us with that. What is it?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So the EU has decreed that all of its member countries, if they’re selling electronic devices like headphones, earbuds, e-readers, and of course, phones, they need to use a USB-C charging port, and that has to happen by the fall of 2024.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Wow. So that could happen by the fall of 2024. Does that mean that Apple and all the other phone makers are going to change the types of phones that they’re making? Like they’re not going to have these weird proprietary ports anymore?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, so that’s definitely the idea. And because the EU is such a huge chunk of the market, it’s hard to imagine that Apple would sell multiple types of phones just to have some that use USB-C and some that continue to use the lightning port. Now of course, lots of Apple products have already switched to USB-C, but a lot of tech writers have been making the case that it’s more likely that Apple is just going to switch totally to wireless charging for its phones to get around this mandate. But it’ll be interesting to see how this actually affects the charger chaos.

JOHN DANKOSKY: We’ve got time for one last quick story. And we’re all awaiting the first science images from the James Webb Space Telescope, the JWST. Those are supposed to come in mid-July, but there’s some news this week about the mirrors on this device.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. So a few weeks ago, the JWST team actually detected a micro-meteoroid hitting one of the telescope’s 18 mirror segments, which is just a piece of space debris usually from a comet that’s a tiny fraction millimeter of a meter long. And because things can pick up a huge amount of speed in the vacuum of space, even those tiny little bits of debris can really cause damage.

I mean, we talked about this with the ISS all the time. They’ll get little like chips in their windows and everyone freaks out, but luckily, it is built to withstand it. And of course, this Space Telescope is definitely prepared for these kinds of micro-meteoroid collisions. So they have reported that this first impact was certainly a doozy, but just showed how well-prepared the telescope is to withstand space debris.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Since we’re in space, I guess I should ask you, the Mars Rover this week, it’s reported, has found a little friend.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, I love this so much. So Perseverance, the newest rover on Mars, has a pet rock and has had for about four months. There’s this Little rock that’s on the rover’s front left wheel, and it has been there for hundreds sols, since early February. And it’s gone more than 5.3 miles. It’s just bouncing around. Apparently it’s pretty common for rovers to pick up rocks in their wheels, but this one is like gunning to set a record, and it’s going to be very far from where it started whenever Perseverance finally lets it go.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Has the pet rock been named yet?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Not to my knowledge, but that’s a great question, and NASA should definitely get on that. They did note that wherever it falls, it is going to cause a lot of confusion for future Mars geologists, which is a fun long-term prospect to think about. But for now, I’m just glad that Perseverance has some company.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I know exactly. Well, thank you for bringing us this fun story and some not so fun stories, Rachel. I appreciate it.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, of course. Thank you.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Rachel Feltman is Executive Editor at Popular Science.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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