Leana Wen, the head of Planned Parenthood, has been repeating the old claim that thousands of women died from illegal abortions every year before Roe v. Wade. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler takes a chainsaw to that claim. The evidence he mentions has long been available — to repeat a point that Cecil Adams made for “The Straight Dope” back in 2004 — but variants of the false claim are persistent and it’s gratifying to see the Post dispel the myths. Kessler notes two data points worth mentioning: “The CDC began collecting data on abortion mortality in 1972, the year before Roe was decided. In 1972, the number of deaths in the United States from legal abortions was 24 and from illegal abortions 39, according to the CDC.” That could, of course, have been an undercount, but it gives you a sense of the scale — and Wen’s estimate is wildly off.
I’ll just add one point that Kessler lets slide, because it’s not his focus. A Planned Parenthood spokeswoman tried to back up Wen’s false claim by citing a 2014 statement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Kessler quotes that statement: “It is estimated that before 1973, 1.2 million U.S. women resorted to illegal abortion each year and that unsafe abortions caused as many as 5,000 annual deaths” (italics in Post). Let’s zero in on the claim on the total number of illegal abortions, since Kessler deals effectively with the maternal-death claim. (He points out, among other things, that a range of sources indicates the death toll was dropping rapidly as a result of factors including the increased use of antibiotics, which makes a 1957 estimate a misleading measure of deaths “before 1973.”) An ACOG spokeswoman then pointed Kessler to a 1957 report estimating the number of illegal abortions at between 200,000 and 1.2 million and noting “there is no objective basis for the selection of a particular figure between these two estimates.”
The 2014 ACOG report was mistaken about that estimate of 1.2 million illegal abortions. (Barbara Boxer used that mistaken estimate in the text of the Freedom of Choice Act she used to introduce when she was in the Senate.) I think we have good reason to reject the idea that it is a plausible high end of a range of estimates. In 1974, there were 899,000 abortions reported in the U.S. To believe there was 1.2 million abortions in 1957, you would have to believe that the number had substantially declined during a period of rapid sexual liberalization, population expansion, the rapid growth of a movement to normalize abortion, the nationwide legalization of it, and the substantially increased safety of it to women obtaining it. That belief strains credulity, and the number really ought to be discarded.