Does Criminalizing Abortion Lead to Women Dying?

2014-02-06 Aborto Legal

One constant refrain from the pro-choice side of the abortion issue is that there will be just as many abortions if they are illegal, but that they will be much more dangerous. Both arguments are objectively false. It’s old news that the first part of that argument is false. The famous chapter in Freakonomics that claimed abortion lowered crime rates was based on a study in the Quarterly Journal of Economics called The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime (pdf). One of the subsidiary findings of the study, discussed in footnote 8, talks about the relatively small decline in births at the same time as the number of abortions went up dramatically after legalization:

Note, however, that the decline in births is far less than the number of abortions, suggesting that the number of conceptions increased substantially—an example of insurance leading to moral hazard. The insurance that abortion provides against unwanted pregnancy induces more sexual conduct or diminished protections against pregnancy in a way that substantially increases the number of pregnancies.

In other words: when abortion was legalized you didn’t see a shift of the same number of abortions from illegal to legal. You simply saw many more abortions. The second part of the argument is also deeply flawed: abortions got safe long, long before they were legalized, and it had nothing to do with the law. (Details here.) It was simply a reflection of advancing medical technology. Even prior to Roe, illegal abortions were performed by doctors, and in the arguments leading up to Roe the safety of illegal abortions was considered an argument for legalizing them. The whole “back-alley abortion” thing was invented after-the-fact as a scare tactic. So the evidence suggests criminalizing abortion would lead to a lower rate of abortions without making the illegal abortions that do take place any more dangerous. Maternal death should not increase.

But what about direct evidence? Well, now we have that too. This article discusses a recent medical study that examined the change in maternal death rate in Chile when abortion was criminalized in 1989 after being legal since 1965. (Full article also available.) The result? With decades of data before and after criminalization, there is no evidence of any increase in maternal death due to illegal abortions.

This is strong evidence, along with what we already knew, that criminalizing abortion would not lead to a flood of scary, dangerous, coat-hanger abortions.

10 thoughts on “Does Criminalizing Abortion Lead to Women Dying?”

  1. So if people believe it should not be legal for a woman to shoot up a 7-11 during a robbery, are they just sexist, totalitarian, control freaks?

  2. Thank you for sharing the evidence to disprove the straw man rhetoric that choicers love to recite. Maybe instead of trolling and name-calling, they could use their time to try and come up with some valid points? But that would require them to think for themselves …


    I’m pro-life but this article is biased. A study in one country in the world isn’t enough to justify that criminalizing abortion doesn’t result in higher risks of maternal death. Wherever a woman is desperate for whatever circumstances and has made up her mind that there is only one solution then we have three choices. 1. Help her out of the circumstances so she isn’t so desperate to have an abortion. 2. Allow her private access to a safe abortion. 3. Do nothing and allow her to attempt an abortion on her own. Our country has a long history of women attempting unsafe abortions due to a lack of resources. Just because safe abortions were available before abortions were legalized, doesn’t mean that women seeking abortions had the resources available that would allow them to have a safe abortion. We also find ourselves in a time where politicians have actively sought to criminalize women for having miscarriages and are considered guilty for committing murder unless they are able to prove their innocence with a very short amount of time. And abortions are still legal. I would hate to see what would happen if abortions were made illegal. Instead of both sides wasting so much time fighting with the other over abortion, what we should be doing is addressing issues that lead women to chose an abortion. Jumping to the conclusion that the majority of women that chose an abortion is due to sexual promiscuity is intellectual dishonesty. Most women chose abortion because their choices are limited in a world that consistently tries to control and punish them just for being women. Let’s work on this first and then come back to the abortion debate.

  4. StarS-

    I think that you’re absolutely right that it’s important to emphasize caring for women who are in crisis pregnancy, but I don’t agree that the article is biased. The evidence already suggested that the legal status of abortion is not related to death rate, and now we have a strong study that confirms this is the case in one nation. When the evidence all points in one direction, that isn’t bias. That’s strong evidence.

    Jumping to the conclusion that the majority of women that chose an abortion is due to sexual promiscuity is intellectual dishonesty.

    Just to be clear: I didn’t say anything about promiscuity. You might be referring to the study of the QJE, but there’s no moral judgment attached to that either by those authors or by me. It’s just an observation that when abortion became legal, the pregnancy rate went up, either as a result of more sex or less care to avoid pregnancy. Some might argue that this is evidence of promiscuity, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my argument, and I didn’t mention it.

    Most women chose abortion because their choices are limited in a world that consistently tries to control and punish them just for being women. Let’s work on this first and then come back to the abortion debate

    I really agree with your sentiment here. The reason I disagree with your conclusion is simply that I believe abortion isn’t an outlet for women fleeing sexism. I believe abortion is sexist. By placing the burden of “choosing” whether or not to carry a child to term, abortion allows men to put immense social pressure on women to get an abortion whether they want one or not. Indeed, many women cite pressure from family or significant others as a main reason for getting an abortion. If abortion is a tool of female oppression (and I believe it is), then we can’t come back to it after we finish other feminist objectives. It is central to the goals and aims of feminism that a woman’s role as mother be given due respect and deference by society, rather than marginalizing women who are pregnant and making them even more vulnerable, which is what elective abortion does today.

    In any case, however, that’s a separate issue from the main point of this post. Does criminalizing abortion lead to more women dying? All the evidence so far says “no”.

  5. Saying that you have to own a uterus to take a position on abortion is like saying that you have to own a cotton plantation to take a position on slavery.

    PS: I’m a woman and a feminist, just in case you would like to call me anti-woman too. Lol. The original feminists like Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Blackwell also opposed abortion, BTW.

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