In the wake of Alabama’s recent ban on abortion, some people are claiming that we will return to the “bad old days” when women were forced to get abortions from untrained, “back-alley” abortionists. These pro-choice advocates say, “Shouldn’t we keep abortion legal so that it’s at least safe?”
How should pro-life advocates respond to this concern?
First, we don’t want anyone—women or babies—to die from either legal or illegal abortion. But the reality is that abortion can never be made safe for the child, because abortion ends the child’s life. It flies in the face of justice to keep a procedure legal just so it is safer for a bigger person to kill a smaller person.
In addition, the number of women who died from illegal abortions in the United States prior to Roe v. Wade is often grossly exaggerated. One 1981 study found that prior to legalization, the average number of illegal abortions in the United States was about 98,000, or about 10 percent of what the total number became shortly after Roe v. Wade.[i] One common claim that circulates around the Internet is that prior to 1973, 5,000 to 10,000 women died each year from illegal abortions. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control, only 39 women died from illegal abortions (and 24 women from legal abortions) in 1972. Former Planned Parenthood President Mary Calderone 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.[ii]
Finally, legal abortion is no guarantee of women’s health. In 2010, the United States had a rate of 21 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. In Ireland and Poland, where abortion is illegal except in rare cases, the maternal mortality rate per 100,000 live births was six deaths in Ireland and five deaths in Poland. There is no reason to think that a developed country cannot protect the health of both unborn and born human beings.
[i] Barbara J. Syska, Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D., and Dennis O’Hare, “An Objective Model for Estimating Criminal Abortions and Its Implications for Public Policy,” in New Perspectives on Human Abortion, eds. Thomas Hilgers, M.D., Dennis J. Horan, and David Mall (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1981), p. 171.
[ii] Mary Steichen Calderone, “Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem” American Journal of Public Health Nations Health. 50(7): July 1960; 949.