Illegal Abortions: The Myth and the Cure

By David C. Reardon, Ph.D.

Polls show that while 80 percent of Americans agree that abortion is killing a human life, most also believe abortion should be legally accessible, at least in some cases. Many of these people accept abortion as an “evil necessity.” Others tolerate it as an “unavoidable evil.” They buy into the assumption that without “safe and legal” abortions, desperate women will foolishly seek out dangerous and illegal abortions. Since abortion can’t be stopped, they argue, why put women’s lives at risk?

This is a compelling argument. So compelling, in fact, that it has become the central argument in efforts to promote permissive abortion laws in developing countries.

In Africa, South America and Asia, population controllers are replicating the tactics used to legalize abortion in Europe and North America. They manufacture exaggerated claims about the frequency of illegal abortions and the number of women dying. They plead on behalf of struggling women who are “burdened” with an endless stream of “unwanted” children.

They claim that no law can stop these desperate women from choosing abortion. The problem is too big. The demand of the people is too great. The only way to protect women from “unsafe” abortions is to respect their “reproductive rights” and make abortion legal and safe-and preferably free, funded by the state.

If pro-lifers want to contain the spread of legalized abortion, much less reverse pro-abortion laws, we must have a solution to the problem of illegal abortions. At the same time, we need to show that the “solution” of legalizing abortion is no solution at all. We must show that legal abortion only increases the pain, suffering and exploitation of women. We must show that the “cure” is far worse than the disease.

Illegal vs. Legal Abortion: The American Experience

In my book Aborted Women, Silent No More, an entire chapter examines what is known about illegal abortions prior to Roe v. Wade and how they compare to the dangers of legal abortion today. While there is not room to reexamine all that material here, I will quickly review some of the most important points.(1)

• Prior to legalization, 90 percent of illegal abortions were done by physicians. Most of the remainder were done by nurses, midwives or others with at least some medical training. The term “back alley” abortion referred not to where abortions were performed, but to how women were instructed to enter the doctor’s office after hours, through the back alley, to avoid arousing neighbors’ suspicions.

• Pro-abortionists claimed that “five to ten thousand women die from illegal abortions every year.” This pseudo-fact was much repeated by the media. Abortion proponents like former abortionist Dr. Bernard Nathanson knew this figure was false but considered it to be “useful” in their public relations campaign. Even Planned Parenthood’s own leading statisticians admitted that the official statistics on deaths resulting from illegal abortion were very accurately reported prior to 1973. In 1972, there were only 32 maternal deaths related to illegal abortion, not the thousands proclaimed by pro-abortionists.

• Deaths from illegal abortions were already declining or leveling off prior to 1973. After legalization, this trend remained unchanged. Deaths eliminated from the illegal abortion column were replaced by deaths resulting from legal abortion.

• The number of women dying from legal abortions is probably several times what it was when abortion was illegal. For many compelling reasons, deaths resulting from illegal abortion were accurately reported on death certificates. Independent studies have confirmed this. But ever since 1973, whenever a legal abortion results in a maternal death the underlying cause is often, and perhaps usually, ignored or disguised on death certificates.

This occurs for many reasons: to spare the surviving family members embarrassment, to limit liability exposure, to avoid tarnishing public perceptions of abortion, and simply because the death is no longer related to a criminal activity.

Independent studies have confirmed the fact that the official statistics on maternal mortality following legal abortions are woefully inaccurate. Most recently, a single researcher examining public records was able to document 50 percent more deaths related to legal abortion than had been reported in the “official” government reports.(2) The researcher, Kevin Sherlock, insists that even his efforts have uncovered only a small fraction of these misclassified abortion related deaths.

• Pro-abortionists claimed that there were one million illegal abortions performed each year. This was another made-up number intended to shock the public with the “overwhelming” dimensions of this unstoppable problem. Scientific estimates based on known deaths and complications related to illegal abortion show that the actual rate of illegal abortions was in the range of 60,000 to 200,000 per year.

• Surveys of women who sought illegal abortions at that time confirm this much lower estimate for the overall rate of illegal abortion. These surveys also showed that less than half of women who sought an illegal abortion actually persisted in obtaining one. In addition, among those women who did procure an illegal abortion, the reported rate of physical complications was almost identical to the complication rate related to legal abortions. This last fact is not surprising since most illegal abortions were already performed by physicians.

• Surveys of women seeking legal abortions confirm that only 6 to 20 percent would have considered seeking an illegal abortion if it was not legally available. This finding also confirms that legalization of abortion has replaced every illegal abortion that we sought to avoid with between ten and fifteen legal abortions.

• Any marginal improvements in the safety of legal abortions, as compared to illegal abortions, are more than offset by the astronomical increase in the number of women exposed to the inherent risks of induced abortion, legal or illegal. While the percentage of women dying from abortion is lower, the actual number of women dying has increased. The actual number of women suffering physical complications has increased. The actual number of women suffering psychological complications has increased. The suffering of women, men, and families has not been reduced by legalization; it has been increased.

• There are also many deaths which are indirectly caused by abortion. Women with a history of abortion are six times more likely to commit suicide. They are also more prone to substance abuse and other forms of risky behavior that may lead to death. They also have increased rates of breast and cervical cancer. In addition, approximately 100,000 women each year will lose a planned baby to spontaneous miscarriage as a direct result of reproductive damage caused by their prior induced abortions.

• Before legalization, abortion was primarily a vice of the more educated and affluent, particularly those married women who were “done” having children. Since legalization, women undergoing abortion are more likely to be young, less educated and less affluent. In this regard, legalized abortion has helped population controllers successfully target a greater number of “lower class” babies for destruction.

• Before 1973, women could better resist the pressure from others to abort an unplanned pregnancy on the grounds that abortion was illegal, unsafe, and immoral. After legalization, it is easier for families and boyfriends to insist that because abortion is legal it must be “safe,” and because it is “socially approved,” it must be moral. Legalization makes it easier to pressure women into unwanted abortions. In my survey of 252 post-abortive women, more than half of the women had felt pressured into the abortion by others. These victims of coerced abortion represent a major portion of the increased abortion rate and are also the most likely to suffer the most severe psychological consequences after abortion.

More Abortions, Not Safer Abortions

As these basic facts illustrate, the claim that legalized abortion will save women from “unsafe abortions” is without merit. The basic flaw in this argument is the false assumption that a change in legal status can make safe a medical act that is inherently unsafe. It is also absurd to believe that legalizing abortion will not increase the abortion rate or expose a whole new group of women to the danger of being pressured into unwanted abortions.

Society has overlooked the fact that not a single study has ever been published which shows that abortion, for any given reason, actually benefits the physical, emotional, economic, or social health of women. Indeed, the available evidence shows that abortion is instead associated with a worsening of the physical, emotional, economic, and social well-being of women.

Legalized abortion has contributed to the feminization of poverty and increased dependency on welfare.(3) Easy access to abortion has made it easier, not harder, for men to abandon their wives and girlfriends. In addition, women with a history of abortion are more likely to experience breast cancer, infertility, miscarriage, substance abuse, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, suicidal impulses, psychiatric hospitalization, and much more.

The only ones receiving any tangible benefit from legalized abortion are not women, but rather, the elitist population controllers. Through the legalization of abortion, they have succeeded in reducing the birth rates among the “lower classes” and racial minorities, which was exactly their goal. But the cost to women has been tremendous.

The exploitation of women is made worse by the fact that abortion clinic counselors routinely withhold information about risks and alternatives from their patients. Deceptive business practices, negligence, and even sexual abuse of patients are well documented throughout the abortion industry.(4) Kevin Sherlock, author of Victims of Choice, has accurately described the present situation with this memorable comment: “While abortion is legal, it is still practiced with the ethics of the back alley.”

The Cure

Clearly, the solution to the dangers of illegal abortions cannot be found in making it legal. Abortion is inherently dangerous.

If society truly wishes to prevent the injuries caused by illegal abortions, the solution is to find better ways to (1) help women faced with problem pregnancies and (2) prosecute and deter abortionists who perform illegal abortions.

The first step can be accomplished through increased support for problem pregnancy centers and public education. We can and must be able to provide women facing crisis pregnancies with the financial, physical, emotional and spiritual support they need and deserve.

We must also educate the public about the dangers of abortion-both legal and illegal-so that no woman would want an abortion and no truly compassionate person would attempt to recommend, pressure, coerce or force her into having one. And we must create a society where women who are facing an unwanted, coerced or forced abortion will know where to turn for real support.

The second step, deterring abortionists, can best be accomplished by passing laws that would allow women who undergo illegal abortions to sue the abortionist for reckless endangerment. This would also apply to any person or group who referred the woman to the abortionist or supplied her with material or advice with the intent of helping her to perform a self-abortion. In our model legislation, women exposed to such reckless endangerment would be entitled to a minimum award of $400,000, even if they did not suffer any other injury.

Admittedly, such a statute would be a significant departure from existing law. Normally, when two people are involved in an illegal transaction, neither one can sue the other for any injuries that result from their illegal activities.

But the problem of illegal abortions is unique. Women seeking illegal abortions normally do so either under pressure from other people, or because they are desperate and ignorant of abortion’s risks. Abortionists who take advantage of women in these crisis situations are the real culprits and as such, should be held accountable for their actions.

To stop dangerous abortions, our goal must be to arrest and convict abortionists. But we won’t succeed in this unless we give the women who are the victims of this exploitation the means and the motivation to testify against the abortionists in both criminal and civil liability trials.

Think about how this simple change in the law would bring an end to illegal abortions. If any “dissatisfied” customer can show up at an abortionist’s door not only with police officers who will press criminal charges against the abortionist, but also with a lawyer who will try to seize all the abortionist’s property, the abortion trade would stop instantly.

At first glance, a few people may imagine that such a law might actually encourage criminally-minded women to seek an abortion just for the opportunity to sue the abortionist. But this fear is exactly why no one would be willing to do an illegal abortion or to assist a woman in performing a self-abortion.

When any woman, injured or uninjured, can sue abortionists for reckless endangerment, there will no longer be any escape from justice. Faced with civil liability for every abortion they perform or refer for, abortionists will be driven so far underground that women won’t be able to find them in the first place. Conversely, any abortionists who can be found to do an abortion, can also be found to be sued and prosecuted.

In addition, the standard of proof in civil suits is lower than in criminal cases. Even if a prosecutor is unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused actually performed an abortion, it may be easier for a personal injury attorney, using the same evidence, to show that it was more likely than not that the defendant attempted an abortion.

This reform also makes good common sense. People who perform or encourage illegal abortions are clearly endangering women’s lives. Tough civil liability standards combined with a longer statute of limitations for filing suit (since the woman may be too ashamed to sue for many years) will be far more effective in deterring illegal abortions than merely criminal penalties.

The solution to “unsafe abortions” will never be found in making abortion legal. Instead, the only solution is to make abortionists fully liable for their actions. ____________________________________________________________________________________

1. See David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1986) 281-310 for citations related to the following statements of fact.

2. Kevin Sherlock, Victims of Choice (Akron, OH: Brennyman Books, 1996), see also Mark Crutcher, Lime 5 (Denton, TX: Life Dynamics, 1996) for details on how pro-abortion government officials have conspired to conceal abortion related deaths and injuries from the public.

3. David C. Reardon, “Abortion and the Feminization of Poverty” The Post-Abortion Review 1(3), Fall 1993.

4. See Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More; Crutcher, Lime 5; and Sherlock, Victims of Choice for hundreds of well documented examples.

Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review 7(4) Oct. – Dec. 1999. Copyright 1999 Elliot Institute.

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