I’ve been stirred up about the issue of abortion recently. So I wanted to do a few posts about some of the arguments for legalized abortion from a pro life view point. I want to really look at them, and try to explain why they are not persuasive for someone who supports making abortion illegal.
Abortion Argument 1: If abortions are illegal, we will have women dying from back alley abortions.
I’ve heard this one a lot. But no one ever told me how many abortions there were before Roe v Wade, and how many women died from them. I did some digging, and found these articles:
- An article called “Lessons from Before Roe: Will Past be Prologue?” states that “Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year. One analysis, extrapolating from data from North Carolina, concluded that an estimated 829,000 illegal or self-induced abortions occurred in 1967.” Article from the Guttmacher Institute.
- A CNN article written on the 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade had a timeline of legality for abortion. According to this article, there were ways to get legal abortion in the 1950s: “1950s: Hospitals start to form “therapeutic abortion boards” to decide whether doctors can perform an abortion on a case-by-case basis, according to Reagan. Therapeutic abortions are allowed by law if the mother’s life is in danger.”
- An article on the Huffington Post references a CDC document that says in 1947 700 women died as a result of botched abortions. The author of the Huffington article points out that that the US population has doubled in size since then.
Please note, these are not pro-life sources. Emphasis added.
So, what does all that mean?
We don’t have an accurate record of how many illegal abortion took place before Roe V Wade. An estimate with a swing from 200,000 to 1.2 million is huge. How can we really know how many abortion were happening illegally? I found a paper by the Georgia Right to Life which addresses this very thing. They point out that many pro-choice advocates claim there were upwards of 1.2 million illegal abortions per year prior to Roe v Wade. Here’s a quote from that paper.
“During 1973, after the Supreme Court had legalized abortion-on-demand nationwide in January of that year, 744,600 abortions were done (according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, an affiliate of Planned Parenthood, which surveys abortion providers and compiles abortion statistics). If abortion supporters want to claim that more than 1.2 million illegal abortions took place before 1973, then they must also explain why the legalization of abortion caused an immediate drop of more than 450,000 in the number of abortions!
The number of legal abortions did not reach 1 million until 1975, the third year of legalization. It was not until 1977 – four years after Roe v. Wade and with 2,688 abortion providers in operation – that the number exceeded 1.2 million, according to the Guttmacher Institute.”
The paper goes on to site stats from Vital Statistics of the United States, Vol. II, Mortality, Part A. 1960-77 about mortality rates around pregnancies. According to that source, in 1960 there were 1579 deaths related to pregnancy (includes abortion and any other health issue) and 289 were officially attributed to abortion complications. In 1968 there were 869 deaths related to pregnancy, 133 attributed to abortion. In 1972, the year before Roe v Wade there were 24 deaths from legal abortions, and 39 from illegal ones. That is a significant difference from 700 reported deaths in 1947. Of course, that makes sense. Medicine advanced a lot between the 1940s and the 1970s.
Regardless of the source, I think it’s a very good point from Georgia Right to Life. Why would there be 1.2 million abortions performed illegally, and then under 800,000 the next year when it was legal? It would make sense that there would have been fewer illegal abortions than legal ones. It would also make sense that the number of illegal abortion was less in earlier years, if for no other reason than that the population of the US was lower. As stated above, the population has more than doubled since the 40s.
We don’t have an accurate record of how many women died from illegal “back alley” abortions. In 1947 there were 700 reported. The Georgia Right to Life group referenced much lower numbers from a report on mortality in the 60s and early 70s. (In all of these cases it’s assumed that there were more deaths related to abortion than were reported. But these are the numbers we have. And, given that it would be more socially acceptable to admit death from botched abortion in the 1970s than in the 1940s due to shifting attitudes on sexuality, I think the downward trend in the numbers of deaths is likely accurate) These reports are contrary to the image of an unsanitary room with some untrained quack performing the procedure. We often hear the phrase ‘back alley abortion” and see the image of a metal coat hanger, but based on these reports it seems that even illegal abortions (which were growing in number as the population grew) were becoming safer as medicine was getting better.
According to an article from July 2014 called Induced Abortion in the United States “The risk of death associated with abortion increases with the length of pregnancy, from one death for every one million abortions at or before eight weeks to one per 29,000 at 16–20 weeks—and one per 11,000 at 21 weeks or later.” According to this CDC report in 2010 there were 10 deaths related to abortion. That number has fluctuated wildly, with as few as 4 in 1995 and 10 in 1994, and 9 in 1996. Medicine in the 21st century has continued to improve.
The numberofabortions.com, as of August 19, 2015, claims the number of abortions since Roe V Wade in the USA is 58, 182, 938. Over the past 42 years, that averages out to 1,385,308.05 abortions per year. That’s an average. The number of abortion in recent years has been declining. Citing both Guttmacher and the CDC, this website says there were between 730,000 and just over 1,000,000 abortions in 2011.
That’s a lot of information, but here’s what I take from it:
- Before abortions were legal, the number of deaths related to complications from them dropped, even though the number of abortions grew.
- Medicine has improved even more since 1973. And while they do still happen, deaths from abortion are very limited now.
- If abortions were illegal it makes sense that there would be fewer- not more- abortions. Based on the declines seen recently, the number would likely be much less than the number of abortions back in 1973.
- It also makes sense that there would be fewer deaths related to complications from illegal abortions since medicine has advanced in the last 40 years.
Now, imagine you are a pro life advocate. Not only is every woman who dies from abortion related complications a tragic loss of human life, but every single abortion is the loss of a human life. Based on this information, I can’t imagine that if abortion were illegal we would see numbers of deaths from illegal abortions spike beyond the numbers back in the 60s and 70s.
Yes, it would be horrible if young women who choose to have an abortion die. And it would be horrible if more women die because they don’t get safer medical treatment.
But, if making abortion illegal saves hundreds of thousands of lives… I don’t want to be callous. Every one of these tragic situations is very complex. The women who choose to have an elective procedure knowingly place themselves at risk. If fetuses are babies, are human lives, how can anyone choose to let hundreds of thousands of babies die in order to save dozens of young women? Can you see how a pro life person would not be swayed by this argument?
I know that by saying this, pro choice advocates can paint me as someone who doesn’t care about the health of women, someone who doesn’t care that young women in hard circumstances might die. But I do care. I don’t want anyone to die. Every life is precious, mother and child.
Obviously, this post doesn’t address every reason someone might support abortion. But this argument is not effective for people who are pro life. Pro life people think that every fetus is a human life. I think that every human life has intrinsic value because we are made in the image of God. That belief colors my view of every argument for or against abortion.