Linda Greenhouse and the Persistent Power of Abortion Myths

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Linda Greenhouse has been spreading myths about the history of abortion in the pages of the New York Times for decades. In 1970, for example, she fell for Cyril Means’s claim, now thoroughly discredited, that New York abortion law had been based wholly on the desire to protect women from an unsafe procedure and not on any desire to protect fetal life.

She’s still at it. According to Harvard Magazine, in a lecture earlier this month “Greenhouse reminded the audience that at the founding of the country, abortion was not a crime.” Wrong. Abortion after quickening was considered a crime everywhere. American courts disagreed among themselves on the legality of abortions before quickening–a distinction that probably entered the law as a result of a combination of the limited biological knowledge of the era and the evidentiary problems those limits created.

Greenhouse has written a new book with feminist legal scholar Reva Siegel, who lectured alongside her. The account continues: “According to Greenhouse and Siegel, public-health concerns first prompted an inquiry into allowing legal abortion. During the decade before Roe v. Wade, there were as many as two million illegal abortions a year, and ‘The impact of this practice fell disproportionately on women of color and poor women,’ said Greenhouse.”

The two million figure is simply absurd. (It’s even higher than the figure that Senator Barbara Boxer and like-minded activists typically use, which is 1.2 million annual pre-Roe abortions–which is also absurd.) Official estimates have the number of abortions in the U.S. at 899,000 in 1974 and 1 million in 1975. Roe came down in 1973. So to believe these numbers we would have to think that the nationwide legalization of abortion caused the number of abortions to fall dramatically and then to start climbing. States that had legalized abortion previous to Roe reported numbers that are hard to square with the 2 million claim: California reported 5,000 legal abortions in 1968.

There’s more on this, as you might expect, in my own book about the right to life.

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