The argument has strong emotional appeal. Who in their right mind wants women to die? Indeed, no sooner did justice Sandra Day O’Connor announce her retirement from SCOTUS (2005) when the National Organization for Women published a banner on its homepage (July 5) which read, “These are the faces of women who died because they could not obtain safe and legal abortions. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, these pictures could include your daughter, sister, mother, best friend, granddaughter. Don’t let George W. Bush and the U.S. Senate put another anti-abortion justice on the Supreme Court.”
In short, we're told women will once again be forced to procure dangerous illegal abortions if abortion is regulated or restricted. Besides, the law can’t stop all abortions, so why not keep the practice legal?
That's the argument. Here's what's wrong with it.*
First, it begs the question. That is, unless you begin with the assumption that the unborn are not human, you are making the highly questionable claim that because some people will die attempting to kill others, the state should make it safe and legal for them to do so. Why should the law be faulted for making it tougher for one human being to take the life of another, completely innocent one? Should we legalize bank robbery so it is safer for felons? As abortion advocate Mary Anne Warren points out, "The fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of forbidding it." Again, the issue isn't safety. The issue is the status of the unborn. (You should always start and end with that question.)
Second, the objection that the law cannot stop all abortions is silly. Laws cannot stop all rape—should we legalize rape? The fact is that laws against abortion, like laws against rape, drastically reduce its occurrence. Hilgers and Horan argue that prior to Roe v. Wade (1973), there were at most 210,000 illegal abortions per year while more conservative estimates suggest an average of 89,000 per year. Within seven years of legalization, abortion totals jumped to over 1.5 million annually! True, no law can stop ALL illegal behavior, but that’s not the point. At issue is the status of the unborn: Are they human beings? If so, we should legally protect them the way we would any other group that is unjustly harmed.
Third, women aren’t forced to have illegal abortions; they choose to have them. Yes, pro-lifers mourn the loss of any woman who dies needlessly, but I refuse to accept the premise that women MUST seek illegal abortions. Greg Koukl writes, “A woman is no more forced into the back alley when abortion is outlawed than a young man is forced to rob banks because the state won't put him on welfare. Both have other options.”
Finally, the claim thousands died annually from back-alley abortions prior to 1973—when Roe. v. Wade legalized abortion in the U.S.—is just plain false. Dr. Mary Calderone, former medical director for Planned Parenthood, wrote in 1960 that illegal abortions were performed safely by physicians in good standing in their communities. True, this doesn't prove no woman will ever die from an illegal abortion, but it does put to rest NOW's claim of high mortality rates for the years prior to legalization. Here's Calderone's quote in context:
"Fact No. 3—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 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 percent, or with the very small percentage that go to some kind of non-medical 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, or they are sending their patients to certain sources outside of this country where abortion is performed under excellent medical conditions. The acceptance of these facts was such that one outstanding gynecologist at the conference declared: “From the ethical standpoint, I see no difference between recommending an abortion and performing it. The moral responsibility is equal.” 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."In addition, the Centers for Disease Control report 39 women died from illegal abortion in 1972, the year prior to legalization, not 5,000 to 10,000 as claimed by abortion advocates for each year prior to Roe. (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control Surveillance Summaries, 9/4/92, p. 33)
Source: Mary S. Calderone, “Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem,” American Journal of Public Health, July 1960.
In short, if you think a particular argument begs the question regarding the status of the unborn, simply ask if this justification for abortion also works as a justification for killing toddlers or other humans. If not, the argument assumes the unborn are not fully human. Again, it may be the case that the unborn are not fully human and abortion is therefore justified. But this must be argued with evidence, not merely assumed by one's rhetoric.
(For more on the status of the unborn as THE question in the debate, go here.)
*Portions of the above post were published earlier--before I accidentally deleted the LTI Blog on Dec. 22.