Because abortion has been legal in the U.S. for over forty years, many wonder what would happen if it were outlawed nationwide. Would there continue to be many abortions, and would large numbers of women die in “back-alley” abortions performed with barbaric tools like clothes hangers, as pro-choice advocates claim?
First, that harmful acts against the innocent will take place regardless of the law is a poor argument for having no law. There are laws against burglary, rape, and armed robbery, yet every one of these crimes continues to happen in our society. Laws should discourage bad things from happening, not conform to them simply because they happen.
So if, as we’ve seen in previous articles in this series, the unborn child is in fact a person, just in an earlier stage of development, then he or she is a human being fully deserving of the protection of the law.
It’s true that hearts and minds—not just laws—need to change in relation to abortion. Yet, we often underestimate the power of law to mold thought as well as action. When slavery was abolished, people gradually began to think differently. The civil rights movement brought about further changes in law, and in people’s thinking. The law is a moral guide, a tutor that helps shape the conscience of society. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless.”(i)
The Law Led the Way
There were abortions in this country before abortion was legal, but the number skyrocketed once it was legalized. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that "from 1970 through 1982, the reported number of legal abortions in the United States increased every year.”[ii] Though the number of abortions in the United States peaked in 1990 at 1.6 million[iii], there were still approximately 1.06 million abortions in the United States in 2011.[iv] The laws that once restrained abortion now encourage it.
Former abortion-rights activist Bernard Nathanson admits that he and his cofounders of NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) fabricated the figure that a million women were getting illegal abortions in America each year before Roe v. Wade. The average, he says, was actually one-tenth that number, about ninety-eight thousand per year. Nonetheless, the media eagerly disseminated the false information.
The Truth About Maternal Deaths from Illegal Abortion
Nathanson also says that he and his associates likewise invented the “nice, round shocking figure” of five thousand to ten thousand deaths a year from illegal abortions.[v]
Research confirms that in 1966, before the first state legalized abortion, a total of 120 mothers died from abortion.[vi] The actual number of abortion deaths of women in the twenty-five years prior to 1973 averaged 250 a year, with a high of 388 in 1948.[vii]
By 1972 abortion was still illegal in 80 percent of the country, but the use of antibiotics had greatly reduced the risk. Hence, the number dropped to thirty-nine maternal deaths from abortion that year.[viii]
However, suppose that only one out of five deaths from illegal abortion was properly identified. This would still mean that the number of women dying the year before abortion was legalized would be fewer than two hundred, only 2–4 percent of the five thousand to ten thousand per year claimed by pro-choice advocates.
This was not mere exaggeration. It was fabrication.
Maternal Deaths from Legal Abortion
Today, abortion is normally not life threatening to the mother. However, despite abortion’s legality, the fatality rate is much higher than many pro-choice advocates admit. A widely disseminated pro-choice video produced in the late 1980s states, “By 1979 the Federal government could not identify a single woman anywhere in this country who died of abortion.”[ix]
This is an amazing statement, since many sources document a number of deaths from legal abortion. According to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, “the New York City Department of Health reported seven legal abortion-related deaths that occurred between 1980 and 1985. The cause of death in all cases was attributed directly to general anesthesia.”[x] (These were seven deaths in a single city.) In 1986, four doctors and researchers presented a study of no less than 193 deaths by legal abortion between 1972 and 1985.[xi]
Since public health officials stopped looking for abortion-caused deaths after abortion became legal, the opportunity to overlook or cover up abortion-caused deaths is now much greater. What makes abortion-related deaths hard to trace is that the majority of the deaths do not occur during the surgery but afterward. Hence, any number of secondary reasons are routinely identified as the cause of death.
Medical Equipment, Not Clothes Hangers
Since 90 percent of pre-1973 illegal abortions were done by doctors, it’s safe to assume that even if abortion were outlawed, many physicians would continue to perform abortions (using modern medical equipment, not clothes hangers). Sadly, many women would continue to have abortions. But the “many” might be a quarter of a million rather than over one million. The result would be over 750,000 mothers and babies annually saved from abortion.
Clothes hangers make effective propaganda pieces at pro-choice rallies, but they do not accurately reflect what would happen if abortion were made illegal again. Clothes hangers would be used for baby clothes, not abortions.
The Central Horror of Illegal and Legal Abortion
We do not try to make kidnapping or child abuse safe and legal. If abortion kills children, our goal should not be to make it as safe and legal as possible, but to provide alternatives and legal restrictions that help avoid it in the first place.
Unfortunately, every horror that was true of illegal abortion is also true of legal abortion. Abortion is horrible primarily because it’s a process in which instruments of death invade a woman's body and kill her innocent child.
Neither laws nor slogans nor attractive waiting rooms nor advanced medical equipment can change the nature of abortion. It will always be what it is—the killing of children.
[i] Martin Luther King Jr., Strength to Love (New York: William Collins and World Publishing, 1963), 33.
[ii] Joy Herndon, M.S., et al, “Abortion Surveillance—-United States, 1998,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 7, 2002).
[iii] “Abortion Statistics: United States Data & Trends,” National Right to Life, http://www.nrlc.org/uploads/factsheets/FS01AbortionintheUS.pdf.
[iv] “Induced Abortion in the United States,” The Guttmacher Institute, September 2016, https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-united-states.
[v] Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 193.
[vii] Bernard Nathanson, MD, Aborting America, 42.
[ix] “Abortion: For Survival,” a video produced by the Fund for the Feminist Majority.
[x] Hani K. Atrash, M.D., Theodore Cheek, M.D., and Carol Hogue, Ph.D., “Legal Abortion Mortality and General Anesthesia,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology (February 1988): 420.
[xi] “Jury Orders Abortionist to Pay $25 Million Judgment,” Life Advocate, June 1991, 25.