For example, in a 2013 piece titled “Roe v. Wade and Beyond: Forty Years of Legal Abortion in the United States,” Carole Joffe wrote that: “From a public health standpoint, legal abortion has unquestionably benefited women and their families. Thousands of American women who sought abortions used to die before Roe, and now such women don’t.”
The claim that “thousands of women” in America have been saved from death because abortion has been legalized on demand during at least the first three or six months of pregnancy is almost certainly a serious exaggeration and an incomplete and grossly misleading statement. The claim ignores the fact that historically (even centuries ago at early common law) abortion was permitted to save the mother’s life. Moreover, law reforms were well underway in many states to expand those exceptions long before the time Roe discarded them and mandated its extreme rule. By the same token, it is at least as likely that some women have died having abortions since 1973 who would have lived but for the shoddy, shabby, dangerous abortion practices that have developed under the Roe regime of legalized abortion-on-demand.
Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s “house of horrors” abortion clinic in Philadelphia is one well-known example that supports the latter claim. Dr. Gosnell was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for snipping the spines of babies who were born alive after “botched” abortions. (It is disturbingly revealing that an abortion is considered “botched” if it results in a live birth rather than a dead baby.)
Dr. Gosnell was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole. Yet amazing, without blinking, and with a straight face, pro-abortion advocates continue to assert the comparative safety of abortion.
In considering comparative abortion and childbirth safety, we need to remember three things.
First, even hundreds of years ago, in the common law of England (and later in the common law of America), the general criminal prohibition of abortion had an exception allowing abortion when necessary to protect the life of the pregnant woman (generally interpreted and applied to include protection of her life or health).
Second, abortion laws reflect the state of medical science and general knowledge at any given time about prenatal life in the woman. That body of knowledge about embryos, fetuses, and life in the womb certainly has expanded greatly in recent decades. It would be strange if the law did not reflect such advances in knowledge. Yet concern for the protection of women with life-endangering pregnancies has been one of the constants in Anglo-American abortion jurisprudence for many centuries.
Third, there is a growing body of good scholarship indicating that maternal health may be safer in places where abortion is more restricted than in places where it is less restricted. For example, in February 2015 the British Medical Journal Open Access online published a report by Elard Koch, et al, “Abortion legislation, maternal healthcare, fertility, female literacy, sanitation, violence against women and maternal deaths: a natural experiment in 32 Mexican states.” It found that Mexican states with “less permissive abortion laws had 23 percent lower overall maternal mortality, and up to 47 percent lower mortality from complications of abortion,” according to Paula Aracena in the piece “Maternal health is better where abortion is restricted” on the Mercatornet.
That BMJ study noted “a combination of variables” contributed to the outcome, and noted that the study found no evidence that the presence of constitutional amendments in those states protecting the unborn produced either “deleterious or beneficial effect.” That counterintuitive result merits further careful examination.
Many other studies in recent years also have undermined the claim that abortion is safer for women than childbirth. For example, in 2012 two researchers published their study linking death certificates with medical records for all Danish women born between 1962 and 1991 who were alive in 1980. Mortality rates were calculated based upon the first pregnancy outcomes (delivery, miscarriage, abortion, and later-term abortion). Mortality rates (from one to ten years later) associated with both early abortions (in the first 12 weeks) and late abortions (after 12 weeks) were higher than mortality rates associated with birth.
An earlier study based on data from Finland analyzed by Finnish health experts revealed that total deaths of women who had abortions were nearly four times higher than it was for women who gave birth. Likewise, the rate of death by suicide was seven times higher, while the rate of deaths by homicide was over eight times higher.
Yet the entire jurisprudential “house of cards” for Roe’s holding that the U.S. Constitution mandates the legalization of abortion on demand was based explicitly, at least in part, upon the facile acceptance of the claim that abortion generally is safer for the pregnant woman than childbirth. In Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun, for the majority, declared:
“Appellants and various amici refer to medical data indicating that abortion in early pregnancy, that is, prior to the end of the first trimester, although not without its risk, is now relatively safe. Mortality rates for women undergoing early abortions, where the procedure is legal, appear to be as low as or lower than the rates for normal childbirth. Consequently, any interest of the State in protecting the woman from an inherently hazardous procedure, except when it would be equally dangerous for her to forgo it, has largely disappeared.”
How can Roe continue to persist as credible constitutional law when it is based on such a dubious, regularly-discredited factual claim?
Finally, it is not irrelevant that the abortion-is-safer-for-pregnant-women claim disregards entirely the effect of abortion upon the other living human being involved directly in the abortion procedure. The unborn child is brutally, horribly killed by abortion. That generates inescapable and deeply disturbing moral issues, because the abortion act deliberately causes the death of a living, innocent human being.
Claims that abortion generally is safer for pregnant women than childbirth drip with corrupt political purpose. They seem to be made irrespective of the evidence and irrespective of the truth. They are made to obtain a desired political outcome at any cost. While research and debate are needed still, such claims about the comparative “safety” of abortion are irresponsible and dangerous.
Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University. He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.