Does Abortion Reduce Maternal Deaths?
Pro-abortion groups claim that legalized abortion is vital for women’s health in the United States since, as they claim, thousands died of illegal abortions every year before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Population controllers also allege that hundreds of thousands of women still die all over the world because their nations have pro-life laws.
For example, The New York Times generously described a publicity stunt by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in an article nauseatingly entitled “Mothers, Flowers and Death”:
On Friday the north lawn of the United Nations was ablaze with 500,000 carnations placed there by the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). The flowers weren’t celebratory. They were grave markers―for the 500,000 women who die each year around the globe from the complications of pregnancy and childbirth….Even more carnations would have been on display had not so many third world countries adopted family planning.1
IPPF alleged, “The legalization of abortion and the provision of family planning services dramatically cut abortion-related deaths.”2
Pro-abortionists also say ad nauseam that, if we “turn the clock back” to the days when women were forced to seek out back-alley butchers, our emergency rooms will once again overflow with desperate women who have been mangled by quacks and “home remedies.” Then they bravely raise their fists and shout, “We will never go back to the days when women died of unsafe, illegal abortions!”
The single most effective tactic used to obtain abortion on demand in the United States and in many other countries was the assertion that a huge number of women died of complications due to illegal and unsanitary abortions each year before the procedure was legalized.
As we have seen, when abortion was illegal, it was in the best interests of the pro-abortion movement to greatly exaggerate the numbers of maternal deaths that resulted from clandestine procedures. Since 1973, the situation has been reversed, and abortion advocates downplay or simply ignore the physical and psychological dangers of legal abortion as part of their strategy to keep “safe and legal abortion” an inseparable component of the medical and social landscape.
Did Abortion Improve the Maternal Mortality Rate in the United States?
If abortion saves lives, we would have seen a dramatic drop in the American maternal death rate during the years 1970-1974, beginning when some states were legalizing the procedure and ending the year after Roe v. Wade, as the situation stabilized.
The American maternal mortality rate has steadily declined from 37.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1960 to 12.7 in 2007. The curve between the years 1970-1974 is very smooth and shows absolutely no deviation from the pattern. This means that the legalization of abortion had little or no impact on maternal health.
Interestingly, the 2007 maternal mortality rate in the USA was 10.4 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women. The rate for black women is more than three times as high at 34.0 deaths per 100,000 live births.3 Part of this difference is due to the consistently substandard care abortionists give to black women. Someone asked butcher abortionist Kermit Gosnell, who is black, why he treated white women with much more care than black women. He replied that it is “the way of the world.”4
In the developing world, where documentation is scarce, pro-abortionists make even more ridiculous claims about illegal abortion deaths than they did in the United States. Many of their allegations regarding the prevalence of maternal deaths due to illegal abortions far exceed the total number of deaths of all women of childbearing age for all reasons in the respective nations. For example:
- Before legalization, Indian pro-abortionists commonly claimed that the total number of women dying of illegal procedures in their country was an incredible 600,000 annually, an exaggeration of 33,333% over the true number.5
- Mexican pro-abortion activists have alleged that 140,000 women die of illegal abortions every year in Mexico, a number that is 880 times greater than the actual figures.6
- The most extreme example of exaggeration was the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s 1991 estimate of 400,000 annual deaths due to illegal abortions in Brazil. Government figures showed that only 55,066 Brazilian women between the ages of 14 and 50 died of all causes in the year this claim was made, and that 241 of these died of complications due to both legal and illegal abortions.7 This means that the pro-abortionists were exaggerating the real number of abortion fatalities by 165,975%. U.S.-funded Brazilian feminist groups still currently insist that 200,000 women die of illegal abortions every year in Brazil, when the actual number is about 150.8
If we add up the illegal abortion numbers claimed by pro-abortionists for various nations in the world, we arrive at a figure of more than two million. The actual maximum possible number of worldwide abortion deaths calculated by the World Health Organization is about 28,000.9
Do Legal Abortions Save Lives?
International population control groups routinely claim that the legalization of abortion will greatly improve the maternal health of women. They say that developing nations that have pro-life laws have high maternal mortality rates, and that more advanced nations that have abortion on demand have low rates. Therefore, the legalization of abortion leads to low maternal mortality rates–hence the slogan “abortions save lives.”
A quick (and careless) glance at maternal mortality statistics seem to support this view. The highest maternal mortality rates (MMRs) in the world are in nations with pro-life laws. These include Somalia with 1,000 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, Nigeria with 630, and Guinea-Bissau with 790. Contrasting with these are countries with abortion on demand and single-digit MMRs: Austria, Sweden, Italy and Belarus with 4, Greece with 3, and Estonia with just 2.9
But hold on. What’s this? Why does pro-life Chile have an MMR of only 25, while Guyana, which has abortion on demand, has an MMR of 280? And why does pro-life Kuwait have an MMR of 14, while pro-abortion Cambodia has an MMR of 250? Could it be that the legalization of abortion has little to do with maternal mortality rates?
There is a good reason for these apparent anomalies: the status of a nation’s abortion laws has little or no impact on its maternal mortality rate.
According to the World Health Organization, abortion ranks ninth as a cause of maternal death in Africa (at 3.9% of all deaths); eighth as a cause of maternal death in Asia (at 5.7% of all deaths); and fourth as a cause of maternal death in Latin America (at 12% of all deaths).
Overall, abortion accounts for 7.7% of maternal deaths in the developing world, ranking a distant fifth after hemorrhage (27.6%), hypertensive disorders (15.1%), obstructed labor (10.1%), and sepsis and infections (9.9%).9
Pro-abortion and population control groups do not seem to be concerned with the 92.3% of pregnant women in the developing world who die of causes other than “unsafe” abortion; their only goal seems to be the worldwide legalization of abortion as quickly as possible, whether or not it is safe. If these organizations would put their enormous stockpiles of money and considerable influence into providing prenatal care, regular checkups, attended childbirth, and surgery to correct obstetric fistula, they would save many times more women than would be saved by simply legalizing abortion.
The governments of Sri Lanka and Malaysia have shown us how to effectively care for women’s health. Both nations have pro-life laws. But instead of embracing the quick, easy and wrong “solution” of abortion legalization, they greatly reduced their maternal mortality rates by making midwives widely available in rural areas and by providing up-to-date equipment and medication for women in labor. As a result, Malaysia’s MMR dropped from 1,088 per 100,000 live births in 1930 to just 29 in 2008. Sri Lanka’s MMR plunged from a dismal 2,136 in 1930 to 35 in 2008. Both nations achieved a 98% reduction in MMR without loosening their abortion laws.10
In conclusion, the great majority of maternal deaths in the developing world are caused by poor health care for pregnant women, not the absence of legal abortion. When abortion is legalized in nations which generally have poor health care, the number of abortions dramatically increases, which leads to even more deaths of pregnant women, not less.
The answer to the pressing problem of maternal mortality in the poorer nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America is not to force Western (non)values on the people by helping exterminate their as-yet-unborn next generations. It is to provide properly-trained birth attendants, sanitary delivery facilities and supplies, and good prenatal care. A nation’s maternal mortality rate is not determined by the legal status of abortion, but by the quality of medical care provided to pregnant women.
 “Mothers, Flowers and Death.” The New York Times Editorials/Letters, May 10, 1992, page 16E.
 “Abortion.” International Planned Parenthood Federation, at http://www.org/en/what-we-do/abortion/default.htm (April 20, 2009).
 Singh GK. Maternal Mortality in the United States, 1935-2007: Substantial Racial/Ethnic, Socioeconomic, and Geographic Disparities Persist. A 75th Anniversary Publication. Health Resources and Services Administration, Maternal and Child Health Bureau (Rockville, Maryland: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) 2010. Figure 1, “Maternal Mortality by Race, United States, 1935–2007,” and Figure 2, “Maternal Mortality Rate by Race/Ethnicity, United States, 2005-2007.”
Robert D. Grove, Ph.D. and Alice M. Hetzel. Vital Statistics Rates in the United States 1940-1960 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Health Statistics, Public Health Service), 1969. Table 44, “Maternal Mortality Rates by Color: Birth-Registration States, 1915-32, and United States, 1933-60,” on page 296.
 “Report of the Grand Jury in the Court of Common Pleas, First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, Criminal Trial Division,” January 14, 2011.
 Priya Darshini. “Abortions Increase in India.” The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), September 3, 1989, page A9.
 Salvador Sandoval’s letter in the April 2, 1992 issue of the Merced Sun-Star, and James A. Miller’s rebuttal in the April 30, 1992 issue of the same publication.
 November 13, 1991 Reuters news service release. Also see the December 30, 1991 letter of Dr. Geraldo Hideu Osanai, President, Associacao Pro-Vida de Brasilia, to Andrew M. Nibley and Thomas D. Thompson of the Reuters News Agency in New York City.
 Julio Severo. “UN, Brazil Falsely Claim 200K Women Die From Illegal Abortion.” LifeNews.com, February 23, 2012.
 Khalid S. Khan, Daniel Wojdyla, Lale Say, A. Metin Gülmezoglu, and Paul F. A. Van Look. “WHO Analysis of Causes of Maternal Death: A Systematic Review.” The Lancet, April 1, 2006, pages 1,066-1,074. Table 1, “Joint Distribution of Causes of Maternal Deaths.”
The World Health Organization says that 358,000 maternal deaths occurred worldwide in 2008, and that 99% of these occurred in developing nations (World Health Organization Media Centre. “Maternal Deaths Worldwide Drop by Third,” August 16, 2012). For a spreadsheet showing calculations based upon this data, e-mail Brian Clowes at email@example.com and ask for Excel spreadsheet F-18-E.XLS
 The World Bank. Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development (Washington, D.C.: The United Nations World Bank), 2011. Box #5: “Reducing Maternal Mortality―What Works? Look at Malaysia and Sri Lanka,” page 25.
Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.
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