Debunking the most common argument for legalized abortion

By Dave Andrusko

Today National Review Online ran a power pro-life column titled “A Common Argument for Legalized Abortion is Wrong”. It’s written by Calum Miller whose bio reads “Calum Miller is a medical doctor and a research fellow at the University of Oxford, U.K., where his research focuses on abortion policy internationally.”

So, what is that “common argument”?

Perhaps the most powerful argument for legal abortion throughout history has been the threat of what happens when it is banned: Countless women will die from backstreet abortions, we are told, because that is what used to happen before it was legalized. Legalization, so the received wisdom goes, put an end to all that.

The ultimate in scaremongering wouldn’t you agree? This mainstay of the case for abortion carries a lot of weight which Miller systematically dismantles:

But the problem is, as my new research shows, it simply doesn’t work. Legalizing abortion does not cause fewer deaths from backstreet abortions — in fact, sometimes it causes more deaths.

I encourage you to read the piece for yourself here. I’ll summarize a few of the highlights and quote extensively.

Miller begins by pointing out what seems to be counterintuitive: “Surely making something legal and allowing it to be performed in sanitary conditions would make it safer and cause fewer deaths?”

He follows this up, writing that “Reality is, as usual, far more complex.”

Legalizing abortion might empower credible, skilled doctors — but it also often empowers quacks and reduces the perceived risk among women. Many women continue to seek less reputable sources of abortion for reasons of privacy, finance, or simply because they are unaware of any legal change. This leads to far more abortions in general, many of which remain unsafe. Moreover, even abortions performed in sanitary conditions can easily become unsafe if there is poor access to emergency care in the — very common — event of complications. As I explain elsewhere, the legalization of abortion can cause increased maternal mortality in general for many other reasons: higher suicide rates, higher drug/alcohol use and smoking, more unintended pregnancies, and so on.

Miller focuses on sub-Saharan Africa—South Africa, Zambia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Mozambique—which have legalized abortion. To keep this post at a manageable length, I will focus largely on what Miller writes about South Africa.

What do the statistics show for a country “cited as a success story of legalized abortion”?  

Miller writes, “the actual maternal-death statistics from South Africa show very clearly that maternal deaths from abortion have been steadily increasing since abortion was legalized. Maternal deaths in general doubled or tripled in the years following legalization, mostly because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but evidence shows that legalized abortion contributes significantly to STD transmission.”

Miller ends his post with this striking and convincing paragraph:

Every life lost to unsafe abortion is a tragedy, and we should make every effort to protect these women’s lives, in our own countries and abroad. But legalizing abortion on demand, the evidence increasingly shows, is only likely to worsen the problem.

Again, you can read Miller’s excellent post here.