Legal Abortion Does Not Save Women’s Lives. Here’s Proof.

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Planned Parenthood president Leana Wen recently made the following claim in an interview with a TV station in Dallas:  

We face a real situation where Roe could be overturned and if it is overturned then one in three women over reproductive age, which is 25 million women, could be living in states, including Texas, where they do not have the right to safe, legal abortion and we know what will happen.

Women will die. Thousands of women died every year pre-Roe

Before we get to the actual statistics, let’s look at what Planned Parenthood was saying back in the 1960s, before Roe. Mary S. Calderone, then medical director of Planned Parenthood, discussed illegal abortions in a 1960 article in the American Journal of Public Health:

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. In New York City in 1921 there were 144 abortion deaths. In 1951 there were only 15; and, while the abortion death rate was going down so strikingly in that 30-year period, we know what happened to the population and the birth rate. Two corollary factors must be mentioned here: first, chemotherapy and antibiotics have come in, benefiting all surgical procedures as well as abortion. Second, and even more important, the conference estimated that 90 percent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians. Call them what you will, abortionists or anything else, they are still physicians, trained as such; and many of them are in good standing in their communities. 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. [1]

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Then Planned Parenthood president Dr. Alan Guttmacher, in his 1960 book Babies by Choice or Chance, wrote:

The technique of the well–accredited criminal abortionist is usually good. They have to be good to stay in business, since otherwise they would be extremely vulnerable to police action. [2]

So we see that before Roe, Planned Parenthood officials knew perfectly well that illegal abortion was not killing thousands of women. Planned Parenthood’s current president is either grossly uninformed, or, more likely, simply lying.

Where did the stories of thousands of abortion deaths a year originate? Pro-choicers started lying about these statistics during the push to make abortion legal in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

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Dr. Bernard Nathanson was a former abortionist turned pro-life activist who co-founded NARAL, a pro-abortion organization that is still active today. He helped come up with pro-abortion talking points. In his 1977 book Aborting America, he wrote about the way NARAL lied about illegal abortion deaths:

How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL., we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.” I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the “morality” of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible. [3]

Malcolm Potts was medical director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), who helped promote abortion throughout the world. He wrote in 1977:

Those who want the [abortion] law to be liberalized will stress the hazards of illegal abortion and claim that hundreds, or thousands, of women die unnecessarily each year – when the actual number is far lower. [4] 

Courtesy of Carole Novielli and Live Action News, here are the actual official numbers on mothers’ deaths from illegal abortion before Roe:

  • 1959: less than 300 deaths (Source: Guttmacher Institute)
  • 1964: 264 deaths (Source: Department of Health Education and Welfare)
  • 1964: 267 deaths (Source: Statistician Dr. Christopher Tietze)
  • 1965: just under 200 deaths (Source: Guttmacher Institute) 
  • 1965: 193 deaths (Source: Planned Parenthood) 
  • 1966: 189 deaths (Source: National Center for Health Statis1tics, reported by CDC)
  • 1972: 39 deaths (Source: Centers for Disease Control CDC)
  • 1973: 19 deaths (Source: Centers for Disease Control CDC)

There were nowhere near thousands of women dying before Roe. The year before Roe vs. Wade was decided, there were only 39 deaths. 

But even though the numbers are small, we still see the numbers going down. Did Roe save some women’s lives? There were, indeed, fewer maternal deaths in 1973 than there were in 1959. So, were fewer women dying?

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Sadly, no. Deaths from illegal abortions simply started being replaced by deaths from legal abortions. In 1978, in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, one of the oldest and most respected peer reviewed medical journals in the world, researcher Dennis Cavanaugh wrote: 

There has been no major impact on the number of women dying from abortion in the United States since liberalized abortion was introduced… It really makes no difference whether a woman dies from legal or illegal abortion, she is dead nonetheless. I find no comfort in the fact that legal abortion is now the leading cause of abortion related maternal deaths in the US. [5] 

Researchers Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D. and Dennis O’Hare conducted a study in 1981 that determined a high number of legal abortion deaths since Roe. They wrote: 

As a result [of deaths by legal abortion], there has been no detectable change in the relative frequency of abortion-related maternal death due to induced abortion in the United States in the last 30 years. It is extremely important that there has been no significant impact on the relative frequency of abortion related maternal death due to induced abortion in the United States since the legalization of abortion.

The reason for this appears to be quite simple. While maternal death due to criminal abortion appear to be decreasing, they have been replaced, almost one for one, by maternal deaths due to legal abortion. [6]

There were not thousands of women dying before Roe, and Roe v. Wade did not stop women from dying of botched abortions. Despite the common argument that overturning Roe would lead to massive numbers of women dying, there is no historical evidence to back this up. 

This article was originally published at Secular Pro-Life.


[1] Mary Calderone, “Illegal Abortions” American Journal of Public Health July 1960, p. 949

[2] Quoted in Kevin Sherlock The Scarlet Survey (Akron, Ohio: Brennyman Books, 1997) 5 

[3] Bernard N. Nathanson, M.D. Aborting America (New York: Pinnacle Books, 1979) 193 

[4] Malcolm Potts, Peter Diggory and John Peel Abortion (Cambridge University Press 1977) 529 

[5] Dennis Cavanaugh “Effect of Liberalized Abortion on Maternal Mortality Rates”American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology February 1978, p. 375

[6] Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D. and Dennis O’Hare “Abortion Related Maternal Mortality: An In-Depth Analysis” in New Perspectives on Human Abortion, ed. By Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D. Dennis J. Horan, and David Mall (Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1981) 84

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