Lying About "Safe" Abortions

by Richard M. Doerflinger

October 19, 2007

The Guttmacher Institute, research affiliate of Planned Parenthood, has helped write a new study in a British journal called The Lancet, and the New York Times is excited: "A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it. Moreover, the researchers found that abortion was safe in countries where it was legal, but dangerous in countries where it was outlawed and performed clandestinely" (Oct. 12).

Some news media tend to lose their critical faculties when presented with the opportunity for a breathless headline on abortion. In this case the basic finding of the study is reported accurately (though without the skepticism that should greet abortion news from the abortion industry), followed by two conclusions that are "spin," not fact.

The Lancet study did find similar abortion rates in countries with anti-abortion laws and those without. However, the former countries tend to be Third World countries with grinding poverty, an unstable society and an inadequate health care system, and these of course place enormous pressure on women. Within the United States, where abortion is legal for all women, abortion rates are much higher among low-income and racial minority women – not because they are less moral, or care less about the law, but because they are so seldom offered another choice.

This does not mean that abortion rates are unaffected by the law. The opposite has been proven again and again in the U.S., as even very modest laws (laws for parental involvement in the case of minors, bans on public funding, etc.) have significantly reduced abortion rates in recent years. So the second half of the Times' lead sentence is misleading and false.

Finally, the Lancet study did not find that legalizing abortion makes it "safe." That was not the subject of the study. The researchers found no reliable way to count "unsafe" abortions directly, so for purposes of the study they simply defined "safe" abortions as "those that meet legal requirements" in countries where abortion is generally legal. They never found legal abortions to be safe, but assumed this in order to study something else.

In effect, "safe" became a euphemism for "legal." A legal abortion was counted as "safe" even if it killed the woman; an illegal abortion was called unsafe and "harmful" even if no woman was harmed. This is stated explicitly in the study, which the Times perhaps did not bother to read.

In fact, studies in this issue of The Lancet note that Peru, the Philippines and Sri Lanka have all dramatically reduced maternal mortality in recent years, without changing their strong laws against abortion. Keys to success in Sri Lanka included an improved health system, skilled birth attendants, and improved status and literacy for women – factors long promoted by the Holy See at United Nations conferences. There are many ways to help women be "safe," without urging them to destroy their children.

The central finding of the Lancet study is actually that the total worldwide abortion rate, including "unsafe" (that is, illegal) abortions, went down between 1995 and 2003. Women globally are turning away from abortion, especially when they are offered better choices. You won't find that conclusion in the New York Times.

Mr. Doerflinger is Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.