The Truth About “Back Alley” Abortions

With the arrest of Dr. Kermit Gossnell and his associates for running an abortion “house of horrors” in Philadelphia, and legislative proposals to strip Planned Parenthood of government funding at the state and federal levels, abortion advocates are falling back on the claim that any effort to regulate the abortion industry will lead to the closing of clinics and a rise in dangerous “back alley” abortions.

But these claims are based on myths. The truth is that legal abortion has increased, rather than prevented, the pain, suffering and exploitation of women.1

5 Myths About “Back Alley” Abortions

Myth #1. Illegal abortions were performed by unlicensed, unskilled hacks. Prior to legalization, 90 percent of illegal abortions were done by physicians.2 Most of the remainder were done by nurses, midwives or others with at least some medical training. The term “back alley” 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.

Myth #2. Tens of thousands of women died from illegal abortions every year. This pseudo-fact was much repeated by the media. The late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, one of the co-founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League and the obstetrician/ gynecologist who directed what was in the 1970s the world’s largest abortion clinic, later revealed that leading abortion proponents knew this figure was false but considered it to be “useful” in their public relations campaign.3 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 39 maternal deaths related to illegal abortion, not the thousands proclaimed by pro-abortionists.

In fact, 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.5

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.6 The researcher, Kevin Sherlock, insisted that even his efforts have uncovered only a small fraction of these misclassified abortion related deaths. Further, researchers in Finland who linked women’s death certificates to their medical records found that 94 percent of maternal deaths associated with abortion are not identifiable as such when looking at the the death certificates alone.

Myth #3. There were a 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.7

Myth #4. If abortion becomes illegal, women will seek out illegal abortions. Surveys of women undergoing 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.8

Further, research and anecdotal evidence finds that most women having abortions are pressured or coerced to do so by someone else — and that most abortions are likely unwanted. Before 1973, women could refuse an unwanted abortion on the grounds that it was illegal, unsafe and immoral. Legalization has made it easier for those around her to insist that because abortion is legal, it must be “safe,” and because it is “socially approved,” it must be moral. It makes it easier for them to refuse to support her desire to continue the pregnancy and insist that she abort anyway. For example, when actress Hunter Tylo was fired from the TV show Melrose Place after she became pregnant, her pregnancy discrimination suit quoted a producer as saying, “Why doesn’t she just go out and have an abortion? Then she can work.” 9

Myth #5. Legal abortions are safer than illegal 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 3.5 times more likely to die following abortion and six times more likely to commit suicide than are women who give birth. They are also more prone to substance abuse and other forms of risky behavior that may lead to death. Indeed, more than 30 studies published in the last five years alone have linked abortion to higher rates of mental health problems, including depression, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, and anxiety disorders — including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

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.10 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, substance abuse, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, suicidal impulses, psychiatric hospitalization, and other problems.

The only ones receiving any tangible benefit from legalized abortion are not women, but rather, the abortion industry profiteers and 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.11 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 truth is that legal abortion still hurts, traumatizes and even kills women and girls. In a letter posted at, Eileen Roberts, president of Mothers and Advocates for Mothers Alone, and the mother of a teen girl injured by abortion, wrote:

How can we be so naive to think that every surgical procedure of abortion is safe and use the argument that women would resort to back-alley abortions? Legalizing abortion simply gave the back-alley physician permission to put his shingle on the front door.

… Abortion may be currently legal, but it is anything but safe for either mother or child. In every abortion someone dies.

My 14-year-old was told she was going to the best abortion clinic in Virginia. Her boyfriend and a so-called adult friend, who transported her 45 miles from our home, did not know her as her parents did.

She suffered emotional and physical consequences from a so-called safe, legal abortion.

To add insult to injury, my husband and I were responsible for more than $27,000 in medical costs to repair the damage done by the abortionist.

In my opinion, this was an example of a legal back-alley abortion.



1. Much of this information is taken from David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 2002) 281-310. Reference the book for any sources not cited in this article.

2. Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1972) 49.

3. Bernard Nathanson, M.D., with Richard Ostling, Aborting America (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1979) 193.

4. See Grisez, Abortion: Myths, Realities, and Arguments, 70-71 and Nathanson, Aborting America, 193.

5. For further discussion and details, see Aborted Women, Silent No More, 282-286.

6. Kevin Sherlock, Victims of Choice (Akron, OH: Brennyman Books, 1996). See also Mark Crutcher, Lime 5 (Denton, TX: Life Dynamics, 1996) and David C. Reardon, “The Cover-Up: Why U.S. Abortion Statistics Are Meaningless,” The Post-Abortion Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, April-June 2000.

7. See see Aborted Women, Silent No More, 287-289.

8. see Aborted Women, Silent No More, 289-291.

9. A. Covarrubias, “7.7m for actor fired over pregnancy,” The Age, Dec. 24, 1997, p. A7. For more examples, see the special report, Forced Abortion in America.

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

11. See See also, Melinda Tankard Reist, Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion (Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 2007); Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More; Crutcher, Lime 5; and Sherlock, Victims of Choice; for hundreds of well documented examples.


The Truth About “Back Alley” Abortions — 12 Comments

  1. Unbelievable number of people who are arguing that ‘both lives matter’, of course they do, but one cannot have one’s cake and eat it – the idea that the potential of the fetus must always be put before the life of the mother is simplistic barbarism. In the end people must be empowered to make their own decisions, and no industry is going to be improved by shoving it into the informal economy. Certainly the informal economy can work well even in the majority of cases, but the formal economy works well for all. The decision to have or not have the baby to a full term is a personal one dependent on many factors and the hint that women should be imprisoned by their past actions by a system seeking to put the fetus rights above their empowerment is a system of oppression against women. If an individual wishes to argue for and against then that is fine, but the safety of a clean system for all is essential. Same argument for legalisation of drugs and prostitution, people will disagree, but the default has to be the empowerment of the people involved not the moral ideas of those not.

    • No one is arguing for the imprisonment of women who have abortions. Even when it was illegal, it was the people providing abortions who were prosecuted, not the women. It has long been recognized that women seeking abortion are distraught and often the victims of misinformation and false promises.

  2. Just FYI – my great-grandmother bled to death from a so-called “back alley” abortion. She left behind three children and an alcoholic, abusive husband (hence the decision to abort).

    My great-grandfather, despondent over her death, committed suicide three years later.

    • Marianne, what a tragic story, and such a loss for your family. Sadly, women died before legalization and continue to do so today. Every woman’s life (and death) matters. Women need real help and empowerment, not to be pushed into abortion whether it is legal or not.

      As a side note, the Real Choice blog documents the deaths of women from abortion both before and after legalization.

  3. We do not need to raise taxes to educate children on not to have sex or get pregnant. We need to give parents BACK the responsibility of their kids. If it was not so easy to abort a baby, more parents would have a different sex talk with their kids.

    We need people to be PRO HUMAN. Both lives matter, the life of the unborn baby AND the life of the mother that is in need.

  4. I have always found it curious that most of these horror stories about abortion before it was legal come from over the top feminist types. Rarely have I heard one from an older woman who was actually alive then. And had first hand experience with one or even knew a close friend who had one.

  5. What about an unwanted child at the age of 14? I’m afraid when we’re talking unwanted pregnancies (at any age), the situation is already a bad one.
    I don’t understand why you try to approach it from the angle of something that can either have a positive or a negative effect – abortion is just a result of an already negative situation.

    • Setting aside the question of whether or not an innocent human life is destroyed which raises moral issues, one can look at the question of abortion for a pregnant 14-year-old from purely a medical viewpoint. In that case the question is whether abortion will make her life better or worse? In that we might consider both the psychological effects and physical effects (immediate and future). When one looks at the research, there are zero studies showing any actual benefit to the psychological and physical health of women. But there are scores of studies showing significant negative psychological effects and negative physical effects–including risks to future wanted children. Plus, the risks on all fronts are greater for teenagers.

      All of these risks should be weighed against the option of adoption. All I can say is that I’ve heard from countless women who have had abortions as teens about how it totally traumatized their lives, lead to substance abuse, self destructive behavior, sexual promiscuity and repeat abortions, miscarriages, etc. And I’ve also heard from women who placed their children for adoption, who have struggled some with that loss but have also felt proud that they were able to do the right thing.

      So, to your claim that “abortion is just a result of an already negative situation,” I would a add, “that makes things even worse.”
      Abortion is a desperate choice that people make when they are hoping for a quick escape from a difficult situation, but it almost invariably makes things worse rather than better, especially for the woman, often for the man, and all to frequently for later wanted children.

      • As someone who had an abortion at 12 years old, I’d like to let you know that you are bullshit. I was diagnosed with depression at age 5. I was raped and forced to be pregnant at age 12. For the three months I was pregnant I was in the worst depression lump in my life (so far. I’m only 16 now). When I had the abortion i was so much better.

        Making abortions illegal with just get more young girls killed. If abortion was illegal when I had one, I would have begged my brother to punch me in the stomach. I would have started smoking and drinking. Anything to get rid of it.

        And I’d like to see your statistics from a NON bias site about women having more miscarriages and abortions after having one abortion. Again, you are bullshit.

        • Adrian, my heart goes out to you and all that you have already suffered in the 16 years of your life. I sincerely pray that you will be spared any more great trials and will find security, peace and contentment.

          I am glad that in your case you did feel better after the abortion and I pray that it will not come back to haunt you as it has so many other women.

          I only ask you to have empathy for women for whom abortion is a hard and traumatic experience. Maybe it’s because of their different circumstances or differences in their personalities. But it is clearly short sighted to think that just because you were really desperate to have an abortion and felt better after having it that this is true for all women . . . or even the majority of women.

          I would encourage you to read some of the testimonies on our web site written by women, or any web site or book where women tell their stories about their experiences with abortion. I am sure it would soften your heart toward them and make you more open to accepting what the research shows. (You can find summaries of hundreds of studies published in top medical journals on this subject at Using those references, you can find the actual medical journal articles.)

          On the other hand, I don’t want to encourage you to read anything on abortion if it will only stir up negative feelings, such as are clear in your comment.

          Please just remember that no one here is judging you. We understand why you did what you did and pray that you will never face any additional negative emotional issues. You already face enough with the history of abuse you have suffered. I truly fear that you will face many more trials in your life.

          Please, simply remember that there are a lot of people and groups out here . . . most of which are led by women who were also victims of abuse who have also had a history with abortion . . . who offer support and healing programs that cover the range of experiences and reactions to child abuse, sexual assault, abortion, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships, et cetera.

          Please try not to be defensive. No one is point fingers of blame at you. Just because I think abortion is often used to exploit women (by men and families who don’t want to support her desire to have the baby), or just because I think abortion ends up hurting more women than it helps, does not mean that I have any negative feelings toward you or any other woman who feels that it did help her in her situation. Many women feel otherwise, and my efforts are mostly directed toward helping those women who are struggling with a past abortion. That doesn’t make me your enemy, or critic, or anything other than someone who also cares about you regardless of your experiences, beliefs, and future desires.

          I truly wish you all the best.

        • I love how you asked Adrian to have empathy on the woman who are dealing with psychological pain over this. Do you realize that Adrian would be on the other end if she did not have the opportunity to do what she did? You clearly don’t have empathy on the ones who fall into her shoes.
          Having quotes about women who suffer is one sided, if you want to help, be open and be honest. Most of the people that go through with an abortion are not forced. Don’t let anyone lie to you. I know that because I’ve been there.

          This is why no matter how pro-life I am, I will never stand for the removal of the choice that people have. It’s my choice to be pro-life I think people should have their choice as well to want to keep a baby inside get it not. I said to someone the other day, if you really want, how about they take out the baby and put into you so you can do the carrying. I’m sure you already know how that ended.

          Rather than all these rules, how about investing in education? How about raising taxes so that more people get educated. Where there is education, people are more equipped to make better decisions. Go and look at other countries, how many of them are debating everyday about abortion or no abortion? These countries don’t have laws against abortion but their rate is far lower than it is here in America. More rules won’t solve anything.

  6. Consider the character and integrity of a person who chooses “abortionist” as a career. Some are genuinely convinced that they are performing a “humanitarian” service; keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” But did the legalization of abortion improve the quality of people who choose to perform them? No. The same careless hacks, greedy quacks, butchers, and perverts that did them then, are doing them now. What kind of “doctor” laughs his way through a 911 call for a convulsing patient? Who preserves “trophies” of his kills? An ethical physician? Or a serial killer?

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