PPFA President Wen Earns Four Pinocchios for Claim of Thousands of Abortions a Year Pre-Roe and 5,000 deaths
By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D. NRL Director of Education & Research
Editor’s note. An uncorrected version of this story first ran yesterday. My apologies.
If it seems like only a couple of weeks ago we were talking about abortion advocates making false claims about abortion and maternal mortality, well, we were.
The Washington Post called out a pro-abortion Democrat congressman and the incoming head of the American Medical Association’s board of trustees for peddling erroneous information about increases in maternal mortality that followed the passage of abortion-limiting legislation in Texas. In fact later data showed lower maternal mortality after Texas redirected family planning funds.
Today it got worse for the face of the Abortion Industry—Planned Parenthood. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker finds abortion activists at it again, this time with new Planned Parenthood President Dr. Leana Wen claiming on multiple occasions that “thousands” of women died every year before Roe.
Repeating an error
Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler notes that Wen made this claim three times in the past few months.
“We face a real situation where Roe could be overturned. And we know what will happen, which is that women will die. Thousands of women died every year pre-Roe.” — Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood, in an interview with WFAA of Dallas, March 6, 2019
“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.” — Wen, in a tweet, April 24, 2019
“We’re not going to go back in time to a time before Roe when thousands of women died every year because they didn’t have access to essential health care.” — Wen, interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” May 22
Kessler says that the history and the facts do not support Wen’s claim and gives that assertion the Post’s lowest rating for accuracy—Four Pinocchios [“whopper” status] . This is very important because this distortion/misrepresentation/lie (take your pick) is a very popular line among abortion advocates.
Tracking down a spectral source
Searching for the source of Wen’s claim, Kessler found documentation was scant and outdated. A Planned Parenthood spokesperson directed him to a 2014 statement by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. ACOG claimed that prior to 1973, 1.2 million U.S. women illegally aborted a year and that “unsafe abortions caused as many as 5,000 annual deaths.”
Those who ignore ACOG’s shameful but long-standing abortion advocacy might think that this definitive statement from an august medical body settles the matter. But to his credit, Kessler noticed that while other claims in the 2014 ACOG statement were documented with citations, this one did not appear to be.
When Kessler asked, an ACOG spokesperson directed him to a 1958 report by then Planned Parenthood medical director Mary Calderone. Calderone said the frequency of abortion “could be as low as 200,000 and as high as 1,200,000 per year.” But she admitting that “there is no objective basis for the selection of a particular figure between these two estimates.”
Noticeably missing from that report, light as it was on any actual national data, was any documentation, much less claim about there being 5,000 deaths a year.
The only place in the material that Planned Parenthood gave Kessler that he found that some documentation for that claim for 5,000 deaths was in a footnote to a 2017 NARAL Pro-Choice America report on “The Safety of Legal Abortion and the Hazards of Illegal Abortion.”
Most of the sources mentioned in that footnote simply talk in terms of probability or estimates, based on assumptions of the number of illegal or “criminal abortions” being performed.
Relying on tenuous, outdated information
The citation of a book by early abortion advocate Dr. Frederick Taussig from 1936 in that NARAL footnote caught Kessler’s attention. Taussig, based on what Kessler termed “not a very rigorous calculation,” mixed theory and data from Germany and a handful of U.S. States to develop an estimate.
Based on data from 13 states from 1927 and 15 states from 1928, Taussig came up with an average of 912 maternal deaths from abortion a year. After determining that those states represented 26 percent of U.S. births, he projected 3,508 deaths a year for the whole country.
Then, after rounding up to 4,000 for presumed oversampling of rural areas, he doubled that figure to 8,000, reasoning that half of the deaths were concealed. For good measure, Taussig added another 2,000 and put the ceiling at 10,000.
Kessler found out that five years earlier, Taussig had actually put the estimate at 15,000 deaths a year. Eventually, he decided that figure was “too high.” But by 1942, Taussig revised his figure downward again, to the 5,000 that many still cite. So from 15,000 down to 10,000 then down finally to 5,000.
Taussig’s data is both old and based on assumptions that no longer hold. His estimates, Kessler points out, were generated before antibiotics such as penicillin came along; infections had often proved deadly after surgery. Moreover surgery itself became safer as techniques and skill improved.
Kessler doesn’t mention it, but there is also a general problem with projecting national estimates based on data from heavy urban areas and more densely populated states where abortionists were more likely to ply their illegal and dangerous trade.
(For more about Dr. Taussig, see Dave Andrusko’s post way back in 2004.)
Not supported by abortion experts
Kessler says that data from Christopher Tietze, another key early abortion advocate, found just 2,677 maternal deaths from abortion in 1933. Just twelve years later, Tietze said, that number dropped to 888.
The aforementioned Mary Calderone, one of the researchers Planned Parenthood offered in support of its claims, herself wrote in the American Journal of Public Health in 1960 (thirteen years before Roe) “Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not just to therapeutic abortion as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions as done by physicians.” Calderone also noted, “In 1957 there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortion of any kind.”
Tietze wrote in Scientific American in January 1969 that maternal abortion deaths might have been between 5,000 and 10,000 thirty years earlier [in the 1930s], but said: “[T]his cannot be anywhere near the true rate now.”
Kessler goes on to quote from other noted abortion researchers saying basically the same thing: that perhaps the numbers were in the thousands back the 1930s, but that those estimates would no longer hold with the advent of modern medicine and antibiotics the decades that immediately followed.
Allegiance to the cause over accuracy
Kessler does not mention the revelations of Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the former abortionist who was one of the early directors of NARAL, who later admitted the numbers were fabrications. In his 1979 book, Aborting America, Nathanson wrote:
How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL, we generally emphasized the frame of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always ‘5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.’ I confess that I knew the figures were totally false and I suppose that others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics. The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.
Kessler awarded Wen “Four Pinocchios” – the designation earned for “whoppers” that go beyond significant factual errors or obvious contradictions.
Noting that Wen is a doctor and that the ACOG is an association of doctors, Kessler writes, “They should know better than to peddle statistics based on data that predates the advent of antibiotics.”
Kessler says definitively that “there is no evidence in the years immediately preceding the Supreme Court’s  decision, [that] thousands of women died every year in the United States from illegal abortions.”
There is not only little reason to believe that was ever the case, and no reason in recent history. And there is also little basis for believing that would be the case if Roe were overturned, as Kessler points out.
Kessler says that “advocates hurt their cause when they use figures that do not withstand scrutiny.” They should know better, Kessler makes clear.
“These numbers were debunked in 1969 — 50 years ago — by a statistician celebrated by Planned Parenthood. There’s no reason to use them today.”