The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler was asked to fact-check a claim made by Leana Wen, the president of Planned Parenthood. After examining it, he found her claim about the number of women who died from illegal abortions prior to Roe v. Wade was a lie worthy of four Pinocchios.
Wen has been pretty worked up recently because of the state laws limiting abortion to the first few weeks of pregnancy. In response, she has repeatedly made a specific claim about the dire situation that awaits women if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Here’s one example:
Before Roe v. Wade, thousands of women died every year — and because of extreme attacks on safe, legal abortion care, this could happen again right here in America. #WeWontGoBack https://t.co/9orqLaif0J
— Leana Wen, M.D. (@DrLeanaWen) April 24, 2019
Is there any support for this claim? Sort of but it’s extremely (and intentionally) misleading. When Kessler looked at the information provided to him by Planned Parenthood to support Wen’s claim, what he found was a number that seemed to come out of nowhere:
Erica Sackin, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman, directed us to a 2014 policy statement issued by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG): “It is estimated that before 1973, 1.2 million U.S. women resorted to illegal abortion each year and that unsafe abortions caused as many as 5,000 annual deaths.”
There is no citation in the statement for the estimate of “as many as 5,000 annual deaths,” even though many of the other sentences are carefully documented. None of the citations around this sentence supports the figure, and there is no explanation about how it was calculated.
So where did the number come from? It was an estimate published by a gynecologist named Frederick Taussig. Actually, it was one of several estimates. In a book he wrote in 1936, he estimated 8,000-10,000 deaths per year. But this figure was mostly guesswork. He was using abortion data from 15 states which collected it in the 1920s then multiplying that number to account for the rest of the US, then rounding up, then doubling that number to account for “concealed” deaths.
But as Kessler points out, while the number of deaths may have been quite high in the 1920s that was largely because medicine was not as advanced and antibiotics were not in use. By 1959, the situation had changed dramatically. Kessler quotes a researcher named Mary Steichen Calderone who wrote, “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.” And there’s reason to think the situation continued to improve before Roe v. Wade was handed down:
A 1978 study found that deaths from abortion declined even more rapidly after 1965 because of more effective forms of contraception and increased availability of legal abortion.
The CDC began collecting data on abortion mortality in 1972, the year before Roe was decided. In 1972, the number of deaths in the United States from legal abortions was 24 and from illegal abortions 39, according to the CDC.
So the claim, from the country’s top abortion provider, that if Roe were overturned thousands of women would die from illegal abortions is certainly false:
Wen’s repeated use of this number reminds us of the shoddy data used by human trafficking opponents. Unsafe abortion is certainly a serious issue, especially in countries with inadequate medical facilities. But advocates hurt their cause when they use figures that do not withstand scrutiny. These numbers were debunked in 1969 — 50 years ago — by a statistician celebrated by Planned Parenthood. There’s no reason to use them today.
The fact is that even if Roe were overturned tomorrow, abortion would remain legal in most states, including the most populous ones. In a few states, women might need to travel to get an abortion. But unless we’re somehow returning to a time before the advent of penicillin, there’s no chance the number of deaths from illegal abortion would be comparable to the 1920s or even the 1960s. This is fear-mongering by Planned Parenthood which is really nothing new for this group.