Echoes of abortion fraud

Were 1967's legislators, like 2007's Rocky, duped by false figure?

May 5, 2007

by David Kopel

In an April 24 retrospective on Colorado's 1967 enactment of a liberalized abortion law, Rocky Mountain Newsreporter Lisa Ryckman wrote: "The University of California School of Public Health estimated that before 1966, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 women died each year in the U.S. from complications of illegal abortions."

The Rockyin 2007, like some legislators in 1967, was too easily duped.

One of the founders of the pro-abortion rights lobby NARAL Pro-Choice America, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, later switched sides, and wrote in his book Aborting Americathat the widely cited death figure was false, but was promoted anyway by abortion rights advocates.

A 2005 report from the nonpartisan Annenberg Political Fact Check at the University of Pennsylvania debunks claims by proponents and opponents of abortion ( article336.html).

Fact Check traces the 5,000-10,000 factoid to a 1936 article by Dr. Frederick Taussig, which was based on data from New York City and Germany, and then extrapolated to a national level.

According to Annenberg, while the figure might have been plausible in 1936, there was no justification for carrying it forward. Widespread use of antibiotics began in the 1940s and, by the 1950s, the vast majority of illegal abortions were performed by physicians.

The National Center for Health Statistics reported an 89 percent decline in abortion deaths from the mid-1930s to 1966. As the Annenberg Center notes, it is reasonable to believe that deaths from illegal abortions were underreported, so that the 1965 figure of 235 deaths might be too low; but there is no reason to believe that the underreporting of illegal abortion deaths increased from 1936 to 1966. (Indeed, the softening of the stigmas about premarital sex and abortion from the 1930s to the 1960s might have reduced underreporting.) Accordingly, the government data showing a decline of nearly 90 percent in abortion deaths by 1966 is likely accurate. The data are available in the Dec. 9, 1992, issue of JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Abortion data expert Christopher Tietze, in a 1969 article in Scientific American,agreed that the official figures of maternal abortion deaths omitted some cases where the true cause of death was successfully concealed; still, "in all likelihood," the number of annual deaths in the 1960s "was under 1,000."

Dr. Mary Calderone, the medical director of the abortion rights organization Planned Parenthood, wrote in 1960 in the American Journal of Public Healththat "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 physician. In 1957 there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind . . . 90 percent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians . . . "

In 2004, syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman, an abortion rights defender, repeated the "10,000 women" figure. Thanks to a flurry of reader e-mail, she looked at the data herself, under the guidance of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights. A March 2003 report from the Institute indicates the number of maternal deaths in 1966, from legal and illegal abortions combined, was under 200 (pubs/tgr/06/1/gr060108.html).

Goodman, to her credit, wrote a follow-up column explaining that Taussig's estimate from 1936 could not be applied to subsequent decades, when the number of maternal deaths from illegal abortion "shrank to hundreds."

In response to my e-mail questions, Ryckman wrote: "My story was an anniversary piece that attempted to put the issue into historical perspective - to look at what they did in 1967 based on what they believed in 1967 and what was written in 1967. The reference to the estimated 5,000 deaths was cited repeatedly by Colorado legislators in Rockyand (Denver) Postclips as a reason for their overwhelming support of a liberalization of the law. In retrospect, it would have made sense to further research the figures and note that estimates put abortion deaths at closer to 1,000 annually during the 1960s."

Indeed, it would have been appropriate for a historical perspective piece to point out that legislators in 1967 were victims of a fraud. Instead, the 2007 article naively republished the 5,000-10,000 lie as a fact.

If the Rockyin 2007 had done what the Rockyand Postin 1967 apparently failed to do - that is, expose the 5,000-10,000 figure as a fraud - the retrospective article could have asked former legislators whether knowledge about the true data would have affected their votes.

"We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." This "Native American saying" adorned the front page of the Rocky'sHome Front section last Saturday. According to the book The Quote Verifier,the words are actually from David Brower, one of the great environmentalists of the 20th century.


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