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Five Myths About Roe v. Wade

Trent Horn

On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 7-2 decision that struck down all state laws banning abortion. As we approach the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and all the media stories that accompany it, let’s look at five myths that defenders of legal abortion routinely peddle in order to legitimize this terrible decision.

  1. Roe v. Wade only allows abortions during the first three months of pregnancy.

Roe v. Wade divided pregnancy into three twelve-week trimesters and ruled that in the first two trimesters states could not outlaw abortion, but they could regulate the procedure in the second trimester to ensure the safety of the mother. Roe allowed but did not require states to ban abortion in the third trimester. Only a handful of countries have federal laws that permit elective abortion into the third trimester of pregnancy, and Roe makes sure that the United States is one of them.

Furthermore, if states did ban abortion in the third trimester, they had to allow an exception for abortions deemed necessary to protect a woman’s health. And Roe’s companion case, Doe v. Bolton, ruled that “health” included any factor that was “physical, emotional, psychological, familial, [or related to] the woman’s age.” According to abortionist Warren Hern, even the mere existence of a child unwanted by his mother can be considered a health risk.

As a result, even though the decision nominally allows states to ban third-trimester abortions, the Court’s definition of “health” made it practically impossible.

  1. A majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade and don’t want it overturned.

This one is a half-truth, because a 2013 NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, like similar polls, found that 70 percent of Americans did not want Roe v. Wade overturned. However, 41 percent of people in that same poll did not know enough about the decision to say if they disapproved of it. Shockingly, a 2012 Pew Research poll found that 56 percent of adults under the age of thirty did not know Roe v. Wade was about abortion.

It’s only true that “Americans don’t want Roe v Wade overturned” because most people are hesitant to hear that anything currently legal will become illegal. But once those same people learn that Roe v Wade allows abortions through all nine months of pregnancy for any reason, a majority of Americans disagree with what it has wrought. A 2017 Gallup Poll shows that only about 25 percent of Americans agree with the precedent set by Roe that allows abortion to be “legal under any circumstance.”

  1. Roe v. Wade has kept hundreds of thousands of women from dying in unsafe back-alley abortions.

I once attended a debate at which the pro-choice advocate used the well-worn statistic that, prior to Roe v. Wade, 5,000 to 10,000 women in the U.S. died every year from illegal abortions. During the question-and-answer period, I said, “According to the Centers for Disease Control, only thirty-nine women in the U.S. died from illegal abortion deaths in 1972, and twenty-four women died from legal abortions in that year. Do you have a source for your exaggerated claim?”

“It’s called ‘Google,’ young man,” she replied. “I don’t have time for any more of your questions.”

I never was able to “Google” her source online. But if she had not cut me off, I would have quoted former Planned Parenthood President Mary Calderone, who said in 1960:

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 physicians. In 1957 there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind. . . . Second, and even more important, the conference estimated that 90 percent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians (American Journal of Public Health and the Nations Health, vol. 50 no. 7, July 1960).

Any death from abortion is tragic, whether it’s a woman or her child, regardless of whether the procedure was legal. But the answer to these tragedies is not to make it legal to kill certain people. There is no reason to think that a developed country cannot protect the health of both unborn and born human beings by outlawing medical procedures that are designed to kill either.

  1. Roe v. Wade is a sound legal argument against abortion.

Justice Harry Blackmun argued in the Court’s majority opinion that abortion had usually been considered a misdemeanor in previous law codes. He claimed that anti-abortion laws were enacted to protect women from unsafe abortions but now that abortions were relatively safe, there was no compelling reason for the state to outlaw abortion.

But in fact, America’s oldest anti-abortion laws referred to abortion as a form of homicide against the unborn, and not just as a threat to women’s health. An 1871 “Report on Criminal Abortion” released by the American Medical Association explicitly makes this point:

[M]en who cling to a noble profession only to dishonor it; men who seek not to save, but to destroy; men known not only to the profession, but to the public as abortionists. . . . These modern Herods, like their prototype, have a summary mode of dealing with their victims. They perform the triple office of Legislative, Judiciary, and Executive, and, to crown the tragedy, they become the executioners. . . . The abortionists are more destructive to human life than ten [foreign] armies.

The Supreme Court also ruled that abortion fell under the scope of other private medical decisions that the state could regulate only in order to protect the health of the woman having the abortion. But even many pro-choice advocates see Roe’s reliance on the so-called “right to privacy” as an example of poor judicial reasoning. Edward Lazarus, who supports legal abortion and was a former clerk of Justice Blackmun, considers the case “indefensible.” He writes:

What, exactly, is the problem with Roe? The problem, I believe, is that it has little connection to the constitutional right it purportedly interpreted. A constitutional right to privacy broad enough to include abortion has no meaningful foundation in constitutional text, history, or precedent—at least, it does not if those sources are fairly described and reasonably faithfully followed.

  1. Jane Roe was a vocal advocate for a woman’s “right to choose.”

“Jane Roe” was the pseudonym that Norma McCorvey used during her lawsuit against the state of Texas. McCorvey originally wanted an abortion because she was unemployed and depressed, but she later admitted that the two attorneys she was referred to, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, made her a “pawn” in their quest to change the nation’s abortion laws. In fact, because the case took so long to decide, McCorvey never had the abortion but placed her child for adoption.

After Roe was decided, McCorvey did not become a permanent advocate for legal abortion. Although for a time she did work at an abortion facility, in 1994 she quit her job and became pro-life. She was received into the Catholic Church in 1998 and continued to fight against the legacy she left behind in Roe v. Wade until her death on February 18, 2017.

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