By Olivia Gans and Mary Spaulding Balch, J.D.
In the late 1960's advocates of legalized abortion used as their rallying cry the argument that "thousands" of women died from self-induced abortions or in the "back-alley" from illegal abortions. They mobilized around the image of the "coat hanger," and insisted that five to ten thousand women died every year from "botched" illegal abortions. They used this argument (and still do) to bolster support for "safe," legal abortion on demand.
However, some of the best evidence that this was a myth has come not from pro-lifers but from advocates of legal abortion. Dr. Mary S. Calderone, a former director of Planned Parenthood wrote in the American Journal of Public Health, "Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not just to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions as done by physician. In 1957 there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind…Second, and even more important, the conference [on abortion sponsored by Planned Parenthood] estimated that 90 percent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians…Whatever trouble arises usually arises from self-induced abortions, which comprise approximately 8 percent, or with the very small percentage that go to some kind of non-medical abortionist…So remember…abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous, because it is being done well by physicians." This was written in 1960!
Another stunning admission about the manufacturing of illegal abortion numbers comes from Dr. Bernard Nathanson, former director of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now known as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League - - NARAL). In his classic 1979 book Aborting America, Dr. Nathanson wrote, "How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL, we generally emphasized the frame of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year. I confess that I knew that the figures were totally false and I suppose that others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the 'morality' of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible."
A powerful debating point is to explain to your audience that for 1972, the year before Roe, the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported 39 maternal deaths from illegal abortion. Those 39 mothers and their 39 children were very real tragedies that should have been prevented by providing support and care for the mother and her unborn child. The number 39 however is a far cry form those exaggerated figures of thousands, even tens of thousands, used by abortion advocates in their cause.
It is also important to remember that women today still die. They die from so-called "safe" and legal abortions. According to the CDC and the Alan Guttmacher Institute (a "special affiliate" of Planned Parenthood) over 200 women have died from legal abortions since 1973. These numbers are also cited in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, vol. 171, no.5 (November 1994), pp. 1365-1352. Common sense would also suggest that it has never been in the abortion industry's self interest to report all the deaths from legal abortion.
Legalizing abortion simply gave the back-alley physician/butcher permission to put his shingle on the front door. Abortion remains very much the same today as it was in 1960, particularly regarding the first-trimester abortion techniques. The risk now comes from the huge increase in the sheer numbers of abortions done on a daily basis.
In other words, what was once a horrible, but confined, tragedy has become a nationwide holocaust! Abortions are done in an assembly-line production in abortion facilities all over the country. Again, the evidence for this often comes from abortions supporters, as we shall see.
Ask your audience this question: How can there be any real safety in an environment where the main concern is to perform as many abortions as possible in order to increase the abortionist's profit margin?
A related contention of abortion advocates for legalizing abortion was that "safe" legal abortions reduce the maternal deaths. The reality, as suggested by the numbers above, is that the number of maternal deaths had dropped dramatically prior to abortion's legalization. The real explanation for the decline was the introduction of overall better maternal health care, particularly antibiotics and blood transfusions. These improvements, and the capacity of modern medicine to cope with emergency medical complications arising from abortion, were the real reasons why women's lives were saved.
Powerful evidence that it is really advances in standard medical care that saves mothers' lives and not the legalization of abortion comes straight from the World Health Organization. According to 1994 figures the two countries with the lowest maternal death rates are Ireland and Malta, where health care is advanced, but abortion is illegal. Whereas the U.S., which has legal abortions, has a maternal death rate that is four times greater than Ireland and Malta.
Common sense can prevail in this question if it is remembered that pregnancy is a natural condition, not a disease. Abortion is always an unnatural interruption of that condition.
When you are discussing this with people, make clear that the bottom line is that every death from abortion is a tragedy. In fact, with every abortion, someone dies. Every mother that dies, every baby that dies - from a legal or an illegal abortion - will never exist again and is lost to society forever. Every abortion stops a beating heart - sometimes two!
The underlying theme in all these pro-abortion arguments is that making abortion legal makes it safer and easier for women to cope with. But there is growing evidence from women who have experienced legalized abortion that it is anything but easier or safer. Legalizing abortion has not made it any less degrading for the mothers involved.
Quote the real voices of these women when addressing those who are unsure of this position and even to supporters of abortion as well. One particularly stunning quote appeared in the Washington Post recently:
"The counselor patiently explained that the reason this clinic can perform the Procedure so cheaply, a third of the price of other clinics, is its assembly line method. By the time the doctor gets there, everyone is prepped, counseled and waiting. He therefore has only to do Procedure after Procedure until 7 p.m., with a minimum of downtime. It seems brutal, but it's efficient."
Women who have organized post-abortion support groups consistently state that had abortion been illegal they would not have sought one. It is important to point out that in poll after poll women suggest that the real reason they aborted their children was that they felt they had no option and that abortion was legal. Emphasis needs to be placed on the pro-life mother-helping centers that are available to these moms.
Abortion may be currently legal, but it is anything but safe for either mother or child. Once again it is necessary to restate that in every abortion someone dies.
*This article originally appeared in July 8, 1998 NRL News
Printed with permission from National Right to Life (www.nrlc.org ).