The Corner

Myth Making on Abortion

The Washington Post’s “five myths” column propagates myths at least as often as it debunks them, and today’s “five myths about abortion” adds to that dismal record.

Rickie Solinger claims, first, that abortion was generally legal in the U.S. until the mid-19th century and that restrictions on it did not reflect a concern for the right to life of unborn children but rather concern for maternal safety, obstetricians’ desire to kneecap their less-professional competitors, and so forth. For a longer treatment of the history of these claims and why they’re false, refer to the relevant chapter of my book. The short version: Abortion after quickening was always illegal at common law, and courts disagreed about the status of abortion before quickening (probably because of evidentiary problems that prosecutions in such cases presented at the time). The campaign to tighten abortion laws following advances in medical knowledge about pregnancy was indeed based on concern for fetal life. It’s why the physicians, for example, didn’t try to out-compete their rivals by performing abortions better than they did. Solinger’s claim that early feminists opposed abortion because they feared it as a threat to women’s chastity and thus their status in society — and not because of any concern for unborn life — is hard to square with, for example, the 1874 editorial on the subject titled ”The Slaughter of the Innocents” that ran in a feminist publication.

Solinger also writes, “According to the Guttmacher Institute, at least 1 million illegal abortions were performed in the United States each year before Roe.” Thus she claims that legalization of abortion did not increase its frequency substantially. I assume that she’s getting that figure from the same Guttmacher paper she cites earlier. Its actual claim: “Estimates of the number of illegal abortions in the 1950s and 1960s ranged from 200,000 to 1.2 million per year.” The high-end estimates have been debunked by Clarke Forsythe, who points out that, among other things, they do not match the relatively low numbers reported in the first years of legalization by states that moved before Roe. But the fact that Solinger can’t even accurately report what her source claims does not inspire confidence in her ability to evaluate the claim — or in her command of any of this material.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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