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If Roe Falls, Will Women Die from Illegal Abortions?

Updated: May 29, 2022

For decades, a standard pro-abortion claim has been that legal abortion is safe for women and illegal abortion is unsafe.

With the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning Roe vs. Wade, some abortion supporters have renewed their assertions that abortion is one of the safest medical procedures available but, if it is criminalized, the abortion industry will go underground and become unsafe and many women will die.

Abortion supporters routinely state that, before Roe, 5000 to 10,000 women died every year from illegal abortions. What evidence do they have for those numbers? None.

In the years leading up to Roe, the recorded numbers of women dying from abortions were in the dozens, not thousands. Could there have been more deaths than were recorded? Probably, but there’s no evidence that there were anywhere near thousands of deaths.

In 1960, Planned Parenthood’s then-medical director Mary S. Calderone wrote 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… 90% of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians.”

In 1972, the year before Roe, the CDC recorded 24 women’s deaths in the U.S. attributed to legal abortion and 39 attributed to illegal abortion.

When Roe was decided, women who aborted their babies were still at risk of dying of hemorrhage from catastrophic injuries, but their risk of developing sepsis had dropped significantly due to the advent of antibiotics to treat infections.

Global abortion statistics are generated by the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization dedicated to promoting abortion named after the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s second president.

Only about 10 percent of countries record abortion statistics with any reliability. The Guttmacher Institute creates abortion “statistics” for the other countries by taking the numbers of women of reproductive age, their marital status, the availability of contraceptives, the number of live births, and a host of other variables and running them through its model to generate the number of abortions, assuming that taking all these variables into consideration, women will have the same abortion rate as their peers in neighboring regions. The Guttmacher model assumes that the legality of abortion does not affect the abortion rate.

Interestingly, in the past, the estimates would classify all illegal abortions as “unsafe” abortions. But in recent years, the Guttmacher Institute has begun to distinguish between “unsafe,” “less safe,” and “safe” abortions and to leave the legality of abortion out of the safety measure all together. It still argues for more legal abortion, saying that legal abortion means more medical professionals will be skilled abortionists, resulting in fewer injuries to women, but it no longer automatically categorizes illegal abortions as unsafe.

Here in the U.S., we’re seeing a similar shift. Without completely abandoning their claim that women will die if Roe falls, abortion advocates are simultaneously championing at-home abortions via mail-order abortion pills, whether or not they’re legal. Where they used to warn that, if abortion becomes illegal, desperate women will maim or kill themselves while attempting to self-induce abortions, now they cheer for “self-managed” abortions in the comfort of one’s home.

Reliable statistics of both the incidence of abortion in countries where it is illegal and the incidence of maternal injuries in countries where abortion is legal are virtually impossible to obtain. The dearth of data has never deterred abortion enthusiasts from claiming that, without access to legal abortion, women will die. Now this scare tactic may have outlived its usefulness. With the possibility that some states may ban abortion in the near future, pro-aborts are promoting illegal abortions as safe and effective.

Abortion is never safe. Every abortion ends the life of a baby and, legal or illegal, sometimes it kills the mother, too.

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