In the days leading up to the infamous Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which legalized abortion in America, pro-choice advocates falsely claimed that hundreds of thousands of women died from illegal abortions. This claim led to several lawmakers voting to decriminalize the procedure prior to Roe, and it is one of the reasons that some lawmakers are hesitant to outlaw it today. The statistics were simply a lie, thought up by the very people who would profit from legalizing it. Past Planned Parenthood president Alan Guttmacher made it clear that a majority of those who committed the supposedly dangerous illegal abortions which killed (according to them) “thousands of women,” were none other than trained physicians. A 1967 Harvard Crimson article documented the statement, writing, “Seventy per cent of the illegal abortions in the country are performed by reputable physicians, each thinking himself a knight in white armor.”
Another Planned Parenthood official also admitted as much.
On October 19, 1959, Mary S. Calderone, a medical director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, presented a paper before the Maternal and Child Health Section of the American Public Health Association (APHA) at the 87th Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she called abortion “no longer a dangerous procedure,” because it was being committed by physicians:
[I]n 1955 it was exhaustively contemplated by 43 men and women from the various disciplines of obstetrics, psychiatry, public health, sociology, forensic medicine, and law and demography… the conference estimated that 90 per cent 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. Whatever trouble arises usually comes after self-induced abortions, which comprise approximately 8 per cent, or with the very small percentage that go to some kind of nonmedical abortionist. Another corollary fact: physicians of impeccable standing are referring their patients for these illegal abortions to the colleagues whom they know are willing to perform them… So remember fact number three; abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous, because it is being done well by physicians. “
The fact is that, in the majority of states prior to Roe, physicians were legally permitted to commit “therapeutic abortions” if the woman’s life was endangered. “[I]n many circumstances the difference between the one and the other is $300 and knowing the right person,” stated Calderone, adding in that same speech:
[I]t becomes clear that the interpretation of legality is probably in the eye of the beholder. What we have to admit is, as was repeatedly emphasized, that most therapeutic abortions are in the strictest sense of the law actually illegal.
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.
Industry insider Bernard Nathanson admitted that those in his camp fabricated large numbers of women who died from illegal terminations prior to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. He should know, as he was an early abortionist who worked to decriminalize such laws in the nation by hijacking the women’s movement of his day with the help of Larry Lader, a Sanger biographer. Together, the two men and a few others founded the largest abortion lobby organization at that time, NARAL (as it was known then, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws).
The lie that hundreds of thousands of women died from illegal abortions was successfully used to persuade lawmakers to rule in favor of legalizing it in the days leading up to Roe. Alexandra Desanctis writes in the National Review:
Undoubtedly this argument, that the illegality of abortion was leading to the deaths of countless women at the hands of “back alley butchers,” played an essential role in leading the seven justices to conclude that legalizing abortion would prevent harm. In fact, Blackmun in the majority opinion cited the papers of NARAL attorney Cyril Chestnut Means Jr., who falsified the legal history of abortion to make it appear as if abortion restrictions were not imposed until the 19th century and were created then only to protect maternal health rather than the lives of unborn children.
As more and more Americans become uncomfortable with the idea of legal abortion without limits, NARAL and its cohorts are resurrecting similar false claims.
False claim: 5,000 to 10,000 women died annually
In his book, “The Abortion Papers,” Dr. Nathanson admitted that the 5,000 to 10,000 death figure which was fed “to the public and the media in the late 1960’s,” was fabricated because it was a “nice, round, shocking figure.” And, just like they do today, the media — willingly and with no documentation — repeated that figure with no demand for proof. Nathanson reiterated this point in his book, “Hand of God,” and shockingly admitted that one of his strategies to changing perception about abortion was to attack the opposition, “at every opportunity,” which was in that day, the Catholic Church. He also admitted that in 1969:
Our favorite tack was to blame the church for the death of every woman from a botched abortion. There were perhaps three hundred or so deaths from criminal abortions annually in the United States in the sixties, but NARAL in its press releases claimed to have data that supported a figure of five thousand. Fortunately, the respected Dr. Christopher Tietze was our ally. Though, he never actually staked himself to a specific number, he never denied the authenticity of these claims.
Tietze was a senior consultant to the Center for Policy Studies of the Population Council, a radical organization founded by John D. Rockefeller III. That organization’s second president was Frederic Osborn, a founding member of the American Eugenics Society who signed Margaret Sanger’s “Citizens Committee for Planned Parenthood,” published in her review in April of 1938. (Osborn may have coined Planned Parenthood’s “Every Child a Wanted Child” slogan, and once wrote, “Eugenic goals are most likely attained under a name other than eugenics.”)
The 5,000 figure mentioned by Nathanson and pushed to the media by NARAL originates from a piecemeal of several sources based largely on assumptions. In the image below, NARAL’s footnote quotes from a source that allegedly “discussed Dr. Christopher Tietze’s estimate of nearly 8,000 deaths from illegal abortion annually in the United States.”
The truth is that Tietze disputed the 5,000 to 10,000 number, as did records of maternal deaths reviewed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the years just prior to national legalization.
Let’s review the facts.
1940 – According to Dr. John C. Willke, in his book, “Abortion and the Pro-life Movement and Insider View,” the “[f]irst official U.S. report stated that 1,407 women died from induced abortion in 1940…” And Guttmacher Institute appears to agree in part, stating, “The death toll had declined to just under 1,700 by 1940…”
1950s – In the previously mentioned speech by Mary S. Calderone on October 19, 1959, the former Planned Parenthood medical director claimed that by the 1950’s, illegal abortion deaths had dropped to less than three hundred:
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.
Guttmacher Institute writes that by 1950, “just over 300” women died from illegal abortion, adding that it was most likely “because of the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, which permitted more effective treatment of the infections that frequently developed after illegal abortion.”
The use of antibiotics was not only beneficial in preventing deaths from illegal abortion but in a decline of maternal mortality over all. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
Medical advances (including the use of antibiotics, oxytocin to induce labor, and safe blood transfusion and better management of hypertensive conditions during pregnancy) accelerated declines in maternal mortality. During 1939-1948, maternal mortality decreased by 71%. The legalization of induced abortion beginning in the 1960s contributed to an 89% decline in deaths from septic illegal abortions during 1950-1973.
1964 – A report authored by Merry Merrifield and published in the Chicago Tribune claimed that in 1964, 264 deaths had occurred from illegal abortion, according to the Department of Health Education and welfare (HEW).
1965 – Planned Parenthood claims, “In 1965, when abortion was still illegal nationwide except in cases of life endangerment, at least 193 women died from illegal abortions.”
Planned Parenthood’s former “special affiliate,” the Guttmacher Institute, writes, “By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200.”
1966 – According to Dr. John C. Willke, “only 160 mothers had died from abortion in 1966 in the entire US.”
1967 – In 1967, Dr. Tietze, who was speaking at a conference sponsored by the Harvard Divinity School and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, called the 5,000 illegal abortion deaths “unmitigated nonsense,” according to a September 13, 1967, article in the Berkshire Eagle. The paper went on to give substantially fewer numbers by Tietze, writing, “The known deaths attributed to abortion in 1964 were 247 and he thinks it is fairly safe to estimate that the real figure may be double that, even a little more, but certainly no more than a thousand.” Note that Dr. Tietze was no pro-lifer: In 1973, he was awarded Planned Parenthood’s infamous Margaret Sanger Award, named after its eugenicist founder who gave at least one speech to the Ku Klux Klan.
The Kingsport News reported on that same conference, pointing out that Tietze disputed the reported illegal totals, which some claimed ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million annually. The paper quotes Tietze as saying, “we have no real basis for guessing which extreme is closer to the truth.”
The Register, a Virginia paper, notes in its article, “Supporters of Liberal Abortion Laws use Inflated Statistics, Expert says,” that Tietze suggested that the larger numbers (5,000 to 10,000) were made up to scare politicians into legalizing abortion. “The higher estimates are made by people who feel in order to raise sympathy for liberalized abortion laws they have to make people afraid.”
1969 – By 1969, the very first abortion surveillance report was published by the Centers for Disease Control, noting a “lack of accurate incidence, prevalence, morbidity and mortality data” on abortion. According to this same CDC report, in 1966, the National Center for Health Statistics reported 189 maternal deaths from abortion complications.
This same year, three researchers found that data on illegal abortion deaths were limited.
Limited information on mortality associated with abortion is available for the United States, but there is practically no information on morbidity…The frequently quoted figure of 5,000 – 10,000 deaths from abortion annually appears unrealistic in view of the 189 deaths from abortion, and about 50,000 deaths from all causes for women of reproductive age, reported by the National Center for Health Statistics for 1966…
1970 – By 1970, the CDC reported that in just a six month period (July to December), out of 16 reported abortions in New York City, eight women — HALF — had died from legal (not illegal) procedures. In total, the 1970 report states that 25 women died in New York City (where abortion had been liberalized), and eleven of those were from illegal abortions. The report also noted that Black and Puerto Rican women suffered higher legal abortion mortality rates.
According to that CDC document, “although there was substitution of legal for illegal abortion deaths, no significant decrease in total abortion mortality occurred following institution of the new law….”
1972, year prior to Roe – In 1972, the year prior to national legalization, CDC reports revealed that deaths from illegal abortion were nothing close to the elusive 5,000 figure.
At the time the initial Abortion Surveillance report was published, CDC reported 51 deaths related to legal, illegal, and spontaneous abortions in 1973, and 71 in 1972. However, those reports were later updated, and the updated numbers can be found in this table from the CDC report (shown below):
Deaths from illegal abortion:
- 1972 – 39
- 1973 – 19
Deaths from legal abortion:
- 1972 – 24
- 1973 – 25
Below is an image of the updated CDC abortion death table for years prior to Roe:
1975 – A 1975 report by National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine, entitled, “Legalized Abortion and the Public Health: Report of a Study,” further dispels the lie that hundreds of thousands of women died from illegal abortion, writing in part, (emphasis added):
It is difficult to find credible estimates of the number of deaths associated with illegal abortion. One estimate, which has been frequently quoted, is between 5,000 and 10,000 deaths per year. That is hardly plausible, considering that the total number of deaths of women aged 15-44 from all causes in the United States is approximately 50,000 annually, and the total number of deaths due to abortion reported by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) has been below 500 since 1958 and below 100 since 1971.
Live Action News previously documented that making abortion legal has not made it safe. Since Roe legalized it on demand, countless women have suffered physical injuries and many have been killed during their so-called safe and legal procedures. Live Action recently interviewed the brother of Cree Erwin-Sheppard, who died in July 2016, a few days after aborting at Kalamazoo’s Planned Parenthood facility on West Michigan Avenue. In the interview below, Tyler Sheppard emotionally recounted Cree’s tragic death as well as the death of the child she carried.
Tragically, as the end of the video documents, Cree is not the first woman to die from legal abortion. But whether illegal or legal, every abortion is intended to take the life of a human baby and sometimes physically damages or kills the mother in the process.
Editor’s Note, 5/28/22: This post has been updated with new video links.