Pro-Choice “Facts”: Illegal Abortion Deaths

Another extremely common lie told by pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood is that thousands of women died of illegal abortions before Roe V. Wade. For example:

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman recently wrote,

“After all, those of us who remember when birth control was illegal and when 10,000 American women a year died from illegal abortions don’t have to imagine a world without choices. We were there.”

I don’t know what world Ellen Goodman was living in. Let’s look at some real statistics and facts:


In the year prior to Roe v. Wade (1972), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (Sept. 4, 1992, Vol. 41, No. SS-5) that 39 women died from illegal abortion in the U.S.(41 died that year from legal abortions). That is a far cry from 10,000. And note that more women died from legal abortions- something no one on the pro-choice sides ever admits to.

Mary Calderone, former director of Planned Parenthood, estimated in a July 1960 article from the American Journal of Public Health that 90% of all illegal abortions were performed by licensed physicians in good standing. She writes the following:

“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 physicians. In 1957 there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind. In New York City in 1921 there were 144 abortion deaths, In 1951 there were only 15; and, while the abortion death rate was going down so strikingly in that 30-year period, we know what happened to the population and the birth rate. Two corollary factors must be mentioned here: first, chemotherapy and antibiotics have come in, benefiting all surgical procedures as well as abortion. Second, and even more important, the conference estimated that 90 percent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians. Call them what you will, abortionists or anything else, they are still physicians, trained as such; and many of them are in good standing in their communities. They must do a pretty good job if the death rate is as low as it is…abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous.”

Yes, this was written by the director of Planned Parenthood. Now here is another quote by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the co-founder of N.A.R.A.L. (now the NARAL Pro-Choice America) who was instrumental in lobbying for legal abortion.

“How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In N.A.R.A.L., we generally emphasized the drama 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 the 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.”

This was quoted in Dr. Nathanson’s book Aborting America


“Between 1967 and 1970 sixteen states legalized abortion. In most it was limited, only for rape, incest and severe fetal handicaps or deformities, and when the pregnancy jeopardized the life of the mother (all of which constitute only 5% of the abortion cases today). There were two notable exceptions – California in 1967 and New York in 1970 legalized abortion on demand.

Legalizing abortion should have eliminated some deaths related to illegal abortions. That is not the case. In the years from 1963-1969, there were an average of approximately 55 deaths per year due to illegal abortions. In 1970, after this initial wave of laws legalizing abortions, there were 109. Deaths from abortions increased.

By the year before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision allowing legal abortion on demand in all fifty states. Now abortion was legal in all fifty states and back alley abortions eliminated with their alleged total of maternal deaths. In 1973 there should have been a sharp drop in abortion-related deaths if abortion advocates were right that legalizing abortion would make abortion safe.

There were 25 deaths resulting from legal abortion in 1973, 26 in 1974 and 29 in 1975.

Some have claimed that the number of illegal abortion-related deaths were not reported accurately or under-reported. Yet, when a woman was seriously injured by an abortion, she went to another doctor for care. The abortion practitioner was rarely involved at that point. The new doctor in many cases had to attempt to save the mother’s life. In cases of maternal death, this new doctor was required to report, and falsification of the death certificate was a felony. Therefore, prior to legalization of abortion, it’s safe to say deaths from illegal abortions were rarely covered up.” From “The Myth of Mass Back-Alley Abortion Deaths” at cited:

Abortion Surveillance 1985, Center for Disease Control, Table #18.
Induced Abortion: World Review 1983, by Christopher Tietze, The Population Council, p 103
Maternal Mortality Surveillance 1979-1986, Centers for Disease Control, M&M Weekly report July 1991, Vol. 40, No. SS-1.

Pro-life writer and activist Christina Dunigan reveals the following in an article on her site that can be found here.:

“It’s disengenuous, to say the least, to credit a few states loosening abortion restrictions starting in 1968 with the huge decline in septic illegal abortion deaths during the nearly twenty year period preceeding the change. Abortion guru Christopher Tietze attributed the decline in abortion deaths during that period to improved abortion techniques (especially the development of vacuum aspiration), improved emergency care (including improved antibiotic and blood transfusion therapy), and a contraceptive-driven drop in unwanted pregnancies….To find more than 1,000 women dying a year from abortions (and this includes miscarriages and legal abortions performed on moribund women in attempts to save their lives), you have to go back to WWII – before antibiotics were available to treat abortion-related infection…legalization of abortion wasn’t a public health miracle preventing 5,000 to 10,000 maternal deaths a year. It did prevent SOME deaths, right? Guess again. The CDC’s intensive abortion mortality surveillance in the early 1970’s showed a reversal in the downward trend. The reduction in illegal abortion deaths was being more than offset by an increase in legal abortion deaths. The prochoice response was not to address the problem. Instead, the CDC dismantled their aggressive mortality surveillance and instead just counted deaths that were voluntarily reported to them. It’s no great surprise that the number of reported deaths went down — they were no longer looking for deaths to report.”

graph showing the number of deaths of women from illegal abortions. Notice that the main drop in the numbers takes place well before Roe versus Wade, when the vast majority of abortions were still illegal. This was due to the increased availability of antibiotics.

Ruth Garnett was an abortion provider who performed over 40,000 abortions between 1918 and 1968. She never lost a patient. She is quoted saying the following:

“There was nothing secret about my clinic in the Broadway Building. We had no locks on any of the doors except the one leading to a hall, which we locked at night. The majority of our cases were referrals from licensed physicians and surgeons. Women came and went in my clinic with scarcely more fuss than there would be in keeping an appointment at a beauty salon. Many girls came to me during their lunch hour and returned to work the same afternoon with no distress.”

From The Abortionist: a Woman against the Law by Jackie Solinger (New York: the Free Press, 1994) page 16

If all this isn’t enough, take into consideration this quote by Dr. Alan Guttmacher, the first president of Planned Parenthood:

“The technique of the well-accredited criminal abortionist is usually good. They have to be good to stay in business, since otherwise they would be extremely vulnerable to police action.”

He made this statement in his book, which was published in 1959.

Alan F. Guttmacher, M.D. “Babies by Choice or by Chance” Doubleday and Co. Inc, 1959

Further, please consider:

“In 1972 I began seeing a marked increase in the number of patients who had had legal abortions. At that time I also began seeing patients with significant complications after legal abortions.”

Matthew Bulfin, M.D. “A New Problem in Adolescent Gynecology” Southern Medical Journal, August 1979.


“Not only do deaths from illegal abortions continue to occur, but constitutional abortion has added its own casualties….Indeed, exhaustive study has shown that maternal deaths resulting from legal abortions are replacing those due to illegal abortions.”

Mark E. Chopko, Phillip H. Harris and Helen M. Allvare, Phi Kappa Phi Journal, Fall 1989

To read about deaths from legal abortions, go here:


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