The Stunning Death Toll of LEGAL Abortion

One of the most frequently cited arguments against criminalizing abortion is this:

If abortion is illegal, women will resort to dangerous, do-it-yourself abortions or untrained, back-alley abortionists. Desperate women will die by the tens of thousands, just as they did prior to Roe v. Wade. Legal abortion safeguards women’s health by giving them access to trained professionals who can end their pregnancy safely.

The idea that legal=safe is succinctly represented at pro-choice rallies by a “No Coathanger” image, like the one to the right. But facts, as John Adams once said, are stubborn things. On May 21, 2005, Dr. Gunta Lazdane, European Regional Advisor to the World Health Organization on Reproductive Health and Research, told attendees at a conference on population that “up to 20 percent of maternal deaths are due to abortion, even in those situations where abortion is legal…there is a question whether legal abortion is safe.”

Yes, you read that right: Up to one in five pregnant women who die is killed by an abortion--even in countries like ours, where abortion is legal.

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Abortion rights advocates have promoted the “legal equals safe” myth from the beginning, claiming that illegal abortion claimed the lives of 10,000 women per year prior to Roe v. Wade. But as former abortionist and NARAL founder Bernard Nathanson admitted in his autobiography The Hand of God, he and other abortion advocates literally fabricated the statistics about illegal abortion’s death toll. Then they’d watch gleefully as sympathetic journalists quoted their made-up figures as gospel truth.

Of course, the stubborn facts tell a dramatically different story about illegal abortion. The American Medical Association reported that the actual number of abortion-related deaths in 1950 was 263 and even those figures were dropping, with 119 deaths in 1970.(1) Even Planned Parenthood’s research lapdog, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, published stats that abortion deaths fell from around 200 in 1965 to 110 in 1967.(2) The Centers for Disease Control confirmed these trends; its records show that beginning in 1940, the death rate from illegal abortion was falling faster than the overall maternal death rate.(3) The stunning thing is that before abortion was legal, it was actually safer to have an illegal abortion than to give birth.

Why so few deaths from illegal abortion? First, because women viewed criminal abortion as unseemly and dangerous, they were less likely to be promiscuous in the first place. Sexually-active women also were more likely to use contraception diligently. In other words, there was incentive to avoid pregnancy.

Today, more than 40 percent of all abortions are repeat abortions, proving (despite abortion advocates’ claims to the contrary) that widespread availability of abortion and contraception has in no way made people more sexually responsible. If anything, it has made them more careless and promiscuous. This attitude was captured perfectly in a 1977 article published by The Population Council, where the author quoted one source’s reasons for not using contraception:

It’s embarrassing to ask him to get out of bed and get a condom…I probably won’t get pregnant because the doctor says I have a tipped uterus, but if I get pregnant he will probably marry me. Or worst coming to worse, I can always get an abortion.(4)

Second, abortion advocates’ insistence that “illegal abortion means a dirty table and a coat hanger” simply isn’t true. Studies show that prior to Roe v. Wade, licensed physicians performed the majority of illegal abortions. One study showed that 89 percent of abortions prior to 1973 were performed by a physician, with another 5 percent performed by a nurse or other medically-trained personnel.(5)

What this tells us is that abortion advocates’ real priority has always been unrestricted legality. Safety, while a nice idea, is incidental and secondary. In 1989, the Miami Herald ran a story about a local abortion clinic whose conditions were heinous. The clinic was run by a woman with a lengthy police record, whose brother (a clinic assistant) actually ended up in prison as an ax murderer. One of the clinic abortionists had lost his medical license in another state after having sex with a 14-year-old.

After one woman died and another was maimed, the Herald ran a story on the clinic, which forced abortion advocates to respond. They admitted they had known about the clinic’s conditions but that had remained silent for political reasons. According to pro-choice advocate Janis Compton-Carr, “In my gut, I am completely aghast at what goes on at that place. But I staunchly oppose anything that would correct this situation in law.”(6)

Compton-Carr was simply expressing what abortion advocates have always meant by “safe and legal”: Safe if possible, but legal regardless. If you think this isn’t still happening, just look at the women butchered and maimed recently by abortionist Kermitt Gosnell in Philadelphia. After Gosnell was indicted last year, district attorney Seth Williams confirmed that state regulators had ignored complaints about Gosnell’s clinic for nearly 20 years.

And if you think these two clinics are anomalies, I dare you to Google “died from abortion” and watch the headlines stack up.

Saline Abortion as Proof

Perhaps the most classic example of abortion advocates being willing to sacrifice women on the altar of abortion rights is the saline abortion controversy. Developed in Romania in 1939, the saline abortion technique was adopted by the Japanese after World War II and used almost exclusively. By 1969, however, so many women had died from it that the Japanese Obstetrical and Gynecological Society declared the method too hazardous and abandoned it.(7)

Western abortion providers, however, enthusiastically embraced saline abortion, despite repeated warnings from Japanese medical professionals.(8) Japan’s problems were caused by untrained personnel working in unsanitary facilities, they claimed, ignoring the fact that Japan’s abortion-related deaths dropped dramatically when its abortionists abandoned the saline technique.

Over the next decade, European abortion providers reluctantly began admitting the Japanese were right. By 1970, so many women had died from saline abortion complications that virtually every European abortionist had abandoned the technique. Yet American abortionists stubbornly resisted, despite a damning report by the American Medical Association that stated that, “Saline amniocentesis abortion has the highest fatality rate of any elective surgical technique, second only to cardiac transplantation.”(9) In other words, it was only nominally riskier to have a heart transplant to have a saline abortion! Not surprisingly, it took the CDC another decade to admit that saline abortions were killing and maiming American women.(10)

Despite overwhelming evidence that saline abortions were often fatal for women, the U.S. abortion industry continued to promote it as a safe technique. In two books published by U.S. abortionists in the early 1990s, authors William Hern and Don Sloan describe how to perform the technique, which Sloan described as “biochemically simple, sound, and effective.” Why would these abortionists cling so stubbornly to a technique they knew was dangerous? Because as Sloan acknowledged in his book, the saline abortion technique “has a distinct advantage for the abortionist, who doesn’t have to be around when the fetus, macerated and lifeless, is expelled.”

Abortion Rights at all Costs—Even Women

While it was extraordinary that a WHO officially even admitted that one in five women die from legal abortion, Dr. Lazdane’s report didn’t address the percentage of women who are “merely” maimed from legal abortions. Common sense tells us that if 20 percent of women are dying from abortion, there no doubt just as many if not more women suffering non-fatal injuries.

In Lime 5, author Mark Crutcher details how Life Dynamics Inc., a pro-life organization, went undercover as a pro-choice group in the early 1990s to obtain information about the abortion industry. The group discovered that shockingly high numbers of women were indeed suffering horrendous injuries during legal abortion procedures.(11) Crutcher cites hundreds of public records to show that women obtaining abortions in the United States routinely suffer minor to severe injuries to the uterus, cervix, intestines, and urinary tract. A significant number also are hospitalized because abortionists perform incomplete abortions, leaving fetal tissue in the uterus that later causes infection and hemorrhaging. In many cases, the injuries to the women cited in Lime 5 were so severe that they died within hours or days of the abortion. Those more fortunate only required hysterectomies or a colostomy bag.

People forget that back when abortion was illegal, physicians who performed abortions had serious incentive to perform them safely. If a woman was injured or died, the doctor faced criminal charges. Today, however, abortion is almost completely unregulated. As the Gosnell case showed, abortion clinics are often allowed to run without any oversight, yet attempts to hold these clinics to any kind of medical standard is always met with staunch resistance from the pro-choice crowd. I still remember being shocked to read that abortion facilities in my home state of Virginia were finally required by law to meet the same safety standards as other freestanding medical clinics–legislation that only passed in 2011.

The truth is, pregnant women were NOT dying in droves prior to Roe v. Wade, but they are now. The next time you wonder if it’s worth it to witness outside of an abortion clinic, remember: there’s no guarantee the women you see walking in those doors will ever come out again.


  1. Council on Scientific Affairs, American Medical Association. “Induced Termination of Pregnancy Before and After Roe v. Wade: Trends in the Mortality and Morbidity or Women,” Journal of the American Medical Association,12/9/92.
  2. “Abortion Providers Share Inner Conflicts,” The American Medical News,7/12/93.
  3. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: CDC Surveillance Summaries,United States 1989, Issued 1992.
  4. Kristin Luker, “Contraception Risk Taking and Abortion,” Studies in Family Planning, August 1977.
  5. Nancy Howell Lee, The Search for an Abortionist, University ofChicago Press, 1972.
  6. The Miami Herald,9/17/89.
  7. Yukio Manabe, MD, “Artificial Abortion at Midpregnancy by Mechanical Stimulation of the Uterus,” American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology,9/1/69.
  8. Yukio Manabe, MD, “Danger of Hypertonic-Saline-Induced Abortion,” Journal of the American Medical Association,12/15/69.
  9. Norman R. Kaplan, MD, “Hazard of Saline Abortion: letter,” Journal of the American Medical Association,7/3/72.
  10. Richard M. Selik, MD, Willard Cates, Jr., MD; Carl W. Tyler, Jr., MD. “Behavioral Factors Contributing to Abortion Deaths: A New Approach to Mortality Studies,” Obstetrics and Gynecology, November 1981.
  11. Mark Crutcher. Lime 5. Life Dynamics Inc.Denton:Texas, 1996.






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