“Life of the Mother” and Threat of Suicide

The word "abortion" on Wood: Abortion to Save the Life of the Mother
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Mainstream media outlets are full of stories about pregnant people whose lives are endangered by their pregnancy and who need an abortion. But sometimes, abortion to save the life of the mother is a scam.

Pro-Lifers and Abortions to Save the Life of the Mother

Individual cases vary, and there are indeed times when a pregnant person’s life can be endangered by a pregnancy. In many of these cases, premature delivery instead of abortion is an option, even when the child is too premature to survive. Directly killing the baby by dismemberment isn’t a requirement. Live Action News discusses how a premature delivery, even when a child has no chance of survival, is different from an abortion.

The media often casts pro-lifers as the bad guys when we require confirmation of a life-endangering pregnancy or put ground rules in place for abortions to save a woman’s life. But there is a very good reason pro-lifers want (and need) to do this.

Pro-abortion activists are trying to create a loophole. They want to give one doctor, the abortionist, the authority, with no oversight, to claim that an abortion endangers the pregnant person’s life. You need to know some history to understand why this is so problematic.

Public Opinion of Doctors Before Roe

Before Roe, there was far more support for legalizing abortion among doctors than among laypeople. In a 1968 poll, 86.9% of doctors were in favor of liberalizing abortion laws, including 94.6% of psychiatrists.1 In 1965, 89% of psychiatrists said they would recommend abortion if the mother’s emotional health was endangered by the pregnancy.2

A Loophole in the Law

Therefore, many doctors were committed to giving women abortions on request. Yet abortions could only be done legally to save the mother’s life. So, doctors created a loophole. If a woman threatened suicide because of her pregnancy, then this meant her life was in danger. Thus, an abortion could comply with the law.

Dr. Allan Guttmacher, who would become the director of Planned Parenthood, stated in 1958:

At Mount Sinai, our rules are specific. The law says that one may abort to save the life of the mother, and therefore we insist that suicidal intent must be present in the psychiatric patient in order to validate the abortion.3

These women were often carefully coached on what to say.

Statistics on Abortion “to Save the Life of the Mother”

From 1952 to 1955 there were 57 abortions committed at Mount Sinai Hospital, and 47.3% were on healthy mothers, done on grounds of averting suicide.4 From 1951 to 1953, 37.8% of abortions committed in New York City were done for this reason. This was up from only 8.2% in 1943.5 Between 1960-1962, it was 61%.6 In 1943, in Buffalo, New York, only 10% of abortions were justified by the risk of suicide. By 1963, this percentage had increased to 80%7, and the overall number of abortions increased considerably.

Sometimes, the pregnant person simply told the abortionist that she was suicidal. In other cases, the abortionist enlisted a psychiatrist accomplice who met with the woman and certified that she was suicidal. He would write a letter or fill out some paperwork, and the abortion would be done.

Doctors Admitted to Dishonesty

Many in the medical field openly admitted that these “consultations” and certifications were a sham.

Two authors writing in 1973 stated:

Some liberal-minded psychiatrists admit frankly that they sometimes must stretch their definitions of life-threatening mental hazards a bit, because they know that their approval is the only chance a woman may have of obtaining a legal therapeutic abortion.8

They quoted Dr. Leon Eisenberg of Harvard admitting, “I write letters recommending abortion that are frankly fraudulent because I am satisfied to be used so that someone may obtain what our society otherwise would deny to her.”9

These weren’t pro-life authors. In their book, they compared abortion to “removing a wart from the side of the nose.”10

Dr. Pietro Castelnuovo Tedesco, associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, said in 1972:

[P]sychiatrists would testify that a woman would probably commit suicide if she didn’t get an abortion … We were fudging on behalf of the patient for humanitarian reasons. It may have been for a good cause, but it was still fudging on psychiatric standards and on scientific truthfulness.11

In the documentary Voices of Choice produced by Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, abortionist Dr. Mildred Hanson described how she coached women who appeared before committees at hospitals for permission to get abortions before Roe:

We had a system put into motion so we could almost assure the patient that the process would go forward. I would coach her that she must convince the psychiatrist that she was indeed suicidal. How when she crossed a bridge she would think, “I’m just going to crawl over the top and jump over.”

Is that unethical to coach a person? Is that lying? Maybe … But when you are between a rock and a hard place you do what you have to do.

A Doctor Gives Pregnant Women Advice

Dr. Robert E Hall wrote A Doctor’s Guide to Having an Abortion in 1971. Hall wrote the book for pregnant women, as a guide on how to get abortions.

Hall writes:

A surprising number of hospital abortions are being performed in the 34 states with … laws which still require a threat to the woman’s life. Somehow the medical profession has always managed to bend these laws as it has seen fit, and right now many doctors in legislatively unreformed areas are openly responding to the growing demand for safe abortions…

Many practice in the most famous medical centers, where they can actually use the reputation of the hospital to protect them from the law. Most pretend to adhere to the law by going through the motions of having a psychiatrist friend certify their patients as suicidal.12

He then instructs:

Most of you will not qualify for an abortion on medical or fetal grounds. Without these qualifications, then, you must convince the doctor that you are suicidal. Some doctors will be satisfied with evidence that you are terribly upset…

[Y]ou will probably have to dramatize your symptoms. Tell your doctor how agitated or depressed you are, that you can’t sleep at night, and that you’re thinking of doing away with yourself…

I don’t mean that you have to lie to these men. Just spell out your fears, your fantasies, and your thoughts of self-destruction. Almost every unhappily pregnant woman has them. Emphasize them – make the most of them. And if the doctor is at all sympathetic to your plight, he will exaggerate your story until, by the time he asks for official approval of your abortion, you will sound like a raving maniac.

There is a certain element of theater in all of this, but it is founded on fact, and you must play your role in order to get an above–board abortion in an unreformed state.13

Actual Suicides Were Rare

Even before Roe, actual suicides among pregnant people were rare. In fact, according to a 1965 study, the suicide rate for pregnant women was one-sixth that of nonpregnant women.14

Of course, this didn’t matter to the doctors.

A More Recent Example

As recently as the 2000s, the suicide subterfuge was still going on.

Alice Eve Cohen wrote a 2009 memoir called What I Thought I Knew. It was about her journey through a pregnancy with a disabled child. Doctors had told Cohen she was infertile, and she was taking estrogen. She didn’t realize she was pregnant until the 26th week. After testing, doctors said that her daughter was intersex, had limb deformities, and might have a fatal disease. Cohen sought a third trimester abortion.

She went to a late-term abortionist named William Raushbaum, who is now deceased. This was their conversation:

‘I don’t want to have a baby. I’m depressed and terrified. I had no prenatal care for the first six months, and the baby was subjected to drugs and x-rays, a CAT scan –’

‘Yes, and?’

‘– And she’s female, but she has a penis, and she might have CAH, a fatal salt-wasting –’

‘Yes, and?’

‘–And I’m scared I’ll go into labor any day and the baby will be premature and severely disabled and–’

‘Yes, and?’

‘Why do you keep saying ‘yes, and?’

‘Is your life in danger?’

‘What do you mean?’…

‘I don’t have time for stupidity. Why are you in my office? I can’t legally put words into your mouth. Exactly how depressed are you?’

‘I think about killing myself.’

‘Thank you! I’m sorry you’re so unhappy, but that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? Since you’re contemplating suicide, the mother’s life is in danger, which is the only way you can get a legal abortion. Not in New York State, which has no exception to the 24-week limit.

You could, however, have an abortion in Wichita, Kansas … Do you want me to call the abortion clinic in Wichita right now?’

I nodded. He called Wichita and scheduled an abortion for Tuesday, in one week.16

She was over 27 weeks.

In the end, Cohen chose life. She and her partner named the baby Eliana. Eliana was born with a physical disability but learned to walk, run, climb, and ride a scooter. Cohen went through a long and difficult battle with postpartum depression but came to love her daughter dearly.


1.     Jane E. Brody “Abortion: Once a Whispered Problem, Now a Public Debate” New York Times January 8, 1968

2.     Leslie Aldrich Westoff and Charles F Westoff From Now to Zero: Fertility, Contraception and Abortion in America (Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Co., 1971) 133 – 134

3.     Quoted in Mary S Calderone, MD Abortion in the United States (New York: Paul B Hoeber, Inc., 1958) 139

4.     Ibid., table 6-13, p. 93

5.     Ibid., table 6 – 10, p. 84

6.     American Journal of Public Health 964 (1965). Cited in David Granfield The Abortion Decision (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1971) 100

7.     K Niswander, R Klein, and C Randall “Changing Attitudes to Therapeutic Abortion” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 28 (1966) 124

8.     Jules Saltman and Stanley Zimbering Abortion Today (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C Thomas Publisher, 1973) 49-50

9.     Ibid., 50

10. Ibid., 15

11. Quoted in Clifford E Bajema Abortion and the Meaning of Personhood (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1974) 70

12.Robert E Hall MD A Doctor’s Guide to Having an Abortion (Bergenfield, New Jersey: New American Library, 1971)

13.Robert E Hall MD A Doctor’s Guide to Having an Abortion (Bergenfield, New Jersey: New American Library, 1971) 22-23

14.Ibid., 24-25

15.Ajay Rosenberg, et al. “Suicide, Psychiatrists and Therapeutic Abortion” California Medicine, 102:407, 1965

16.Alice Eve Cohen What I Thought I Knew (New York: Penguin Books, 2009) 44-45


Sarah Terzo covered the abortion issue for over 13 years as a professional journalist. In this capacity, she has written nearly a thousand articles about abortion and read over 850 books on the topic. She has been researching and writing about abortion since attending The College of New Jersey (class of 1997) where she minored in Women’s Studies.

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Author: Sarah

Sarah Terzo is a pro-life writer and blogger. She is on the board of The Consistent Life Network and PLAGAL +

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