In an effort to promote the global legalization of abortion, a number of articles published during the last few years have used the example of El Salvador to argue that “unsafe” abortions lead to the deaths of thousands of women each year. El Salvador prohibits abortion except in the rare cases when a woman’s life is at risk, a policy that is considered “unsafe” by abortion-rights activists.
To illustrate this assertion, each of the authors gestures at one particular data point: the supposed fact that 11 percent of abortions in El Salvador result in the death of the mother. This claim cropped up just this week in Harper’s Bazaar, but it has also been pushed by articles in Marie Claire, National Geographic, Newsweek, Foreign Policy, and Amnesty International.
Unfortunately for proponents of this argument, the 11 percent figure is incorrect, and the origin of these claims becomes evident after a careful review of the data in question. To begin with, nearly all of these articles cite a 2011 World Health Organization (WHO) study, which doesn’t in fact provide any details about El Salvador’s abortion rates or maternal-mortality rates.
The 2011 WHO study links to a maternal-mortality trend report, estimating that 110 expectant mothers in El Salvador died for every 100,000 live births in 2008. That yields .11 percent, and it doesn’t consider specifically abortion-related maternal deaths. So far, the oft-cited figure has yet to appear.
A closer look at the Harper’s Bazaar article provides us with some further clues. To bolster her use of the 11 percent statistic, the author cites a report from the pro-abortion group Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), where we do find the claim that 11 percent of abortions in El Salvador between 1995 and 2000 were fatal for the mother.
The CRR then directs us to a Global Health Council (GHC) report, which estimates that there were 246,275 abortions in El Salvador from 1995 to 2000. If the 11 percent claim were correct, it would mean that, in a five-year span, over 27,000 Salvadoran mothers died as the result of abortion procedures.
That figure is almost absurd enough to dismiss on its face, but the GHC report goes on to put the final nail in the coffin, noting that during this five-year span only 209 women died from abortion. That’s .08 percent of 246,275, not 11 percent.
Another interesting note: The GHC report lists 1,885 total maternal deaths in El Salvador for the same period, which allows us to calculate that 11 percent of the country’s total maternal deaths were abortion-related. That statistic is evidently distinct from the claim that 11 percent of the country’s total abortions lead to maternal death.
Leaving aside the complicated questions surrounding maternal-mortality rates and abortion policy, it’s impossible to take abortion-rights activists seriously when they fail to substantiate their arguments with actual data and instead propound unfounded statistics to score political points.
Editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.