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Abortion Distortions

By David van Gend - posted Monday, 15 November 2004

As senior government figures state their view that there are too many abortions, especially late abortions, and as pro-choice voices raise the spectre of backyard deaths if abortions are restricted by law, it is time to correct the historical and clinical misconceptions surrounding the “myth” of the backyard butcher.

There is no denying the power of the "No coat-hangers" cry raised by abortion pressure groups in response to recent public statements by politicians, but it is the power of emotional blackmail. It says to citizens, if you put any limits at all on abortion, women will die again in the backyard, and you will be responsible.

If that vision is valid - of women dying as a result of making certain abortions illegal - then of course no democracy will enforce the law. Even those people who are dismayed at the prospect of unlimited abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, by any brutal method, are even more dismayed at the thought of women dying again in droves at the hands of backyard butchers. Debate is paralysed.


If however, that vision is an illusion: if the whole backyard butcher scare campaign can be discredited by a few historical facts and we understand that women need not die as a result of laws limiting abortion, then the debate can move on.

Fact one: Making abortion legal or illegal has never, historically, made the slightest difference to the safety of women. This is because of fact two: Medicine alone, not the law, has achieved all the gains in maternal safety. 

These gains were made by medical breakthroughs such as the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, blood transfusion, improved surgical techniques and emergency services, and were achieved before there was a single liberal law or "safe legal clinic". If these legal changes made any additional contribution to safety, it is too small to show up in the historical records.

By studying the entire Australian Bureau of Statistics data on Causes of Death 1906-1996 it can be observed that the death rate for illegal abortions plummeted from about 100 deaths every year in the 1930s (before antibiotics) to just one death in the whole of Australia in 1969 (the last year of the old "backyard" regime) –and this was before there was a single "legal" clinic anywhere in the country.

All this was thanks to medical advances alone, with the legal status of abortion unchanged and irrelevant. It is also noteworthy that maternal deaths from all causes - childbirth, miscarriage and abortion - dropped exactly in parallel, for the same medical reasons. Abortion deaths have always been about one fifth of total maternal deaths. Note that in the "legal" seventies, further small gains in average abortion mortality exactly matched further gains in childbirth mortality - but nobody suggests childbirth had been recently legalised: Medical progress, not legal agitation made abortion (whether criminal or medical) and childbirth, irreversibly safer.

Facts one and two dispel the cherished illusion that "illegal" means "unsafe" and that "therefore it must remain legal" - the trump card of the abortion lobby. This is beginning to be acknowledged even by abortion supporters. Writing in the US journal Women's Quarterly, Candice Crandall reluctantly accepts that medical advances, not legal changes, were responsible for improved safety, "In fact, it wasn't Roe v Wade (the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 to legalise abortion) that made abortion safe, it was the availability of antibiotics beginning in the 1940s".


She also confirms "The most powerful of the pro-choice arguments was the claim that any infringement of the right to an abortion would return America to the dark ages when thousands of women died because of unsafe, back-alley abortion".

Thousands of women? In fact, she notes, the US death toll had dropped to 41 in the year before Roe v Wade, not the 10,000 figure promoted by the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). Co-founder of NARAL, Dr Bernard Nathanson, writes, "I confess that I knew the figures were totally false - but the overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible". Whatever it takes.

Yes, genuine limits on abortion would again drive some selfish abortions “underground”.

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About the Author

Dr David van Gend is a Toowoomba GP and Queensland secretary for the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human Life.

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