In Kansas earlier this year, legislators trying to look into the deaths of five women got quite a shock: They were told in a March 9 hearing that five women had died after the same elective procedure but, astonishingly, the Kansas Public Health Department could neither confirm nor deny the figures.
In fact, across the United States, public-health departments only haphazardly collect information about deaths and complications from this elective procedure, which touches the lives of at least one out of every ten people in the United States. The procedure is abortion.
Abortion advocates commonly claim that “abortion is safer than childbirth.” But is that true? Little published information exists in the United States on deaths and complications resulting from abortion.
In the U.S., there are two sources of data on abortion deaths and complications, both equally unreliable: the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Both rely on voluntary (not mandatory) reporting. Neither has any reliable mechanism for double-checking the accuracy of the submitted information.
The CDC gets its data on the number of abortions from state public-health departments; the reporting is completely voluntary. In contrast to most important health indicators — births, deaths, cancer, HIV, STDs, etc. — there is no national reporting law requiring that abortions or their complications be reported to national health officials or agencies.
Most state abortion-data collection is haphazard and relies on the willingness of abortion providers to share their records voluntarily. Some states, like California — which has a quarter of all abortions annually (300,000) — don’t report at all. California, New Hampshire, and Alaska haven’t reported their abortion data to the CDC since 1998. So the CDC data is not much better than “garbage in, garbage out.”
This nonchalance about deaths and complications from a procedure performed on one out of every three pregnant women in the United States is unconscionable, especially in light of a study in the April 2010 Lancet showing that maternal mortality in the United States has increased.
Is it mere coincidence that maternal mortality in the United States began to increase at the same time that the abortion-inducing pill Mifeprex (RU-486) was approved for abortions? There is no systematic tracking of deaths and complications from RU-486, just as there is no systematic required tracking of deaths and complications from any abortion.
The second source of abortion complication information comes from the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
The Guttmacher Institute also obtains data voluntarily from abortion providers, who are generally in no position to address complications from abortions. Typically, when a woman suffers a complication after an abortion, she is simply told to go to the nearest emergency room. The abortion provider washes his or her hands of any further responsibility or knowledge.
As the abortionist is ignorant of the deaths or complications resulting from the procedure, the abortion provider has no significant data to pass along to the Guttmacher Institute. What the abortion provider does not know, Guttmacher cannot know.
Further, Guttmacher is hardly an unbiased source of information. Guttmacher used to be the “official research arm” of Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the U.S.; now they just have an unofficially cozy relationship — and a shared political agenda.
Given the currently available data, even the most basic questions about abortions cannot be reliably answered, including:
How many abortions are done annually in the United States? What are the immediate and long-term risks from abortion? How many women die from surgical and Mifeprex abortions? How many women suffer damage to their reproductive organs after abortion? How many women are hospitalized after botched abortions? How many women commit suicide after abortion? How many women suffer major depression after abortion? How many women experience preterm birth in their next pregnancy because of damage done during the abortion of their last child?
Women need this kind of basic medical information before they make a decision to abort. And it is the responsibility of Congress to make sure that the agencies responsible for public health collect the information that women have a right to know.
It’s time for Congress to hold hearings about what happens behind the closed doors of abortion clinics across America. Any procedure involving tax dollars and affecting one in three pregnant women deserves closer scrutiny. And the United States also needs a National Abortion Reporting Law to allow for a true picture of the deaths and complications resulting from abortion.
Women do not need pious platitudes about “safe” abortion. They deserve the facts.
— Donna Harrison, M.D., is an obstetrician-gynecologist in southwestern Michigan and past-president of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Clarke Forsythe is senior counsel for Americans United for Life, and author of Politics for the Greatest Good: The Case for Prudence in the Public Square.