A major argument against electing pro-life candidates to national office is that they will forbid abortions, driving them underground and then women will die.
“Morgentaler saved the lives of women by helping them avoid being butchered by charlatans.”
(Cardinal Turcotte, Montreal 9/17/08, re: Canadian Abortionist)
These are actually the words of a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. If he truly believes what he said, then in his mind the argument that making abortion illegal will condemn women to dangerous back alley “coat hanger” abortions appears to be valid. At least it is believed by a great number of people. This charge has been thoroughly investigated, and the Cardinal is absolutely wrong.
Over the years, we have heard estimates of illegal abortions. Recall that in 1972, just before the Roe vs. Wade decision, pro-abortion activists were claiming there were a million illegal abortions in the US annually, and 5,000 – 10,000 women died each year. So it behooves us, first of all, to ask, “What are the actual figures of how many illegal abortions were there? The answer is that no one knows, for the obvious reason that neither the abortionist nor the women reported the deed, and because of this, there are no records, statistics or reports. So if anyone tells you there were “X” number of illegal abortions somewhere at a certain time, they are guessing.
But we do have a clue. There is one reported figure that can lead us to some degree of accurate estimate of the number of women who died from illegal abortions. Such international reporting ranges from inadequate to non-existent. But the US, almost alone since the 1940s, has separately reported women’s deaths from spontaneous abortion (miscarriage), legal induced abortion and illegal induced abortion. If we knew how many illegal abortions it took to cause one death, we could calculate backwards and find the total number of illegal abortions. The problem is that no one has the slightest idea of how many it took.
In the US, we do have some definite numbers on deaths from illegal abortions. In the US Senate during the tumultuous debate on abortion in 1981, these official government statistics were not challenged by pro-abortion forces. Back in 1940, all abortions were illegal and 1,300 women died that year. Penicillin became available in the late 1950s and annual deaths in a year dropped precipitously to about 250 in the entire US. This held steady until the early 1960s. By then we had developed newer and better antibiotics, installed intensive care units in our hospitals, and trained our surgeons to be much more skilled. The first states, Colorado and California, legalized abortion in 1967. However, prior to this in the early 1960s, the number of deaths had dropped steadily from 250 to about 120. This number continued to decline through the next few years as a number of states, including New York, also legalized abortion.
The year before the US Supreme Court decision of 1973, deaths from illegal abortions had fallen to 39, with 25 additional deaths that year due to legal abortions. In 1973, abortion became legal in all 50 states. Now “back alley” abortions should have been eliminated with their alleged toll of maternal deaths. However, there was no such drop. The previous rate of decline actually slowed to flatten out in the late 1970s and 1980s. So it would clearly seem that legalizing of abortion in the US did not save almost any women’s lives.
Some would question whether illegal abortion deaths were reported accurately. The answer here is quite clear. Back when abortion was a felony, if and when a woman was seriously injured by an abortionist, she went to a different doctor for care as the abortionist was nowhere to be seen. What if the new doctor tried to save her life, but she died anyway? Was this new ethical physician going to deliberately falsify the death certificate (a felony) to protect the abortionist? Not likely. Therefore, prior to legalization, deaths from illegal abortion were seldom covered-up.
Then we ask whether deaths from legal abortions today are reported accurately. The answer is evident. They are not. As an example, in 1991, there were four documented deaths from legally induced abortion in the state of Maryland and yet it reported to the Center for Disease Control that there were none. E.g., one of those Maryland death certificates listed the cause of death as “therapeutic misadventure.” Another reason why they are not reported is prior to legalization, a second doctor almost always was the one who tried to save her life. In today’s age, it can be the same doctor. Since this abortionist does not want to have a reputation for having mothers die, he has a strong motivation to list some other cause of death. Since abortion is no longer a crime, this can be done with relative impunity.
Why don’t we look to the “bad old days?” In the late 1950s, all abortions were illegal and abortionists were alleged busy. In the July 1960 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, there was an article by Dr. Mary Calderone, Medical Director of Planned Parenthood. She stated, “Ninety percent of illegal abortions are being done by physicians. Call them what you will, abortionists or anything else, they are still physicians trained as such. They must do a pretty good job if the death rate is as low as it is. Abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main, no longer dangerous because it is being done well by physicians.”
Finally, let us ask about “coat hanger” abortions, about which we have all heard. Mrs. Willke and I have lectured in over 80 countries on abortion. We frequently ask our audiences to provide documentary proof of an abortion by a coat hanger. In all these years, no one has given us a single case. It may well be there never were any “coat hanger” abortions.
And so dear friends, I hope the Cardinal reads this article. I am sure he is a man of good will and certainly has no motivation as a Catholic leader to increase abortions, but his statement is tragically incorrect. In this election, charges about returning to back alley butchery are simply heated campaign rhetoric and have no basis in fact. The next time you hear this kind of nonsensical charge send them a copy of this article. If you want further documentation, write to me at www.lifeissues.org.