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Dr Peter Saunders

How many women really died from abortions prior to the Abortion Act?

Dr Peter Saunders is CMF Chief Executive and was formerly a general surgeon. He also serves on the boards of the International Christian Medical and Dental Association and Coalition for Marriage and is campaign director for the Care Not Killing Alliance.


The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

A common argument from the pro-choice lobby is that legalising abortion in 1968 saved thousands of women who would have otherwise died from back-street abortions.

Before 1968, it is contended, women with unwanted pregnancies who did not want to have their babies had no choice but to seek the help of amateur ‘back-street’ abortionists who carried out their procedures with coat-hangers or other similarly inappropriate ‘instruments’. The result was that women often developed infections and died.

Once abortion was legalised in 1968 women could then obtain abortions that were not only ‘legal’ but also safe.

The argument is that any move to restrict abortion now would drive women back into the hands of backstreet abortionists leading again to thousands of deaths.

The reality is much more complex than that. But you have to look at the actual evidence to understand what really happened.

First, maternal mortality from all causes, including abortion fell dramatically long before abortion was legalised as a result of better medical care.

Second, many so called ‘back-street abortions were actually carried out ‘illegally’ by ‘skilled professional’ nurses and doctors using surgical instruments in sterile conditions.

Third, legalising abortion did not eliminate all maternal deaths, as some women now began to die of legal abortions, and in addition there was still a trickle of illegal abortions.

However since 1968 all abortion deaths in Britain have fallen to almost zero.

The two slides I have used in this blog have been taken from a presentation on maternal mortality by Professor Owen Drife of the University of Leeds and can be viewed online.

The first slide (above)shows the dramatic drop in maternal deaths from all causes that happened long before the legalisation of abortion in 1968. This fall was clearly not due to legalising abortion.

The second slide (left) shows deaths from legal abortion, illegal abortion and miscarriage since 1952 (the first slide starts at 1935 so this second slide covers only the last part of this period after rates had already fallen dramatically).

In the years 1952-4 there were just over 50 women dying per million maternities from illegal abortion. As there were far less than a million maternities per year in 1952 (there are only 700,000 births a year now) this means that the actual number of women dying from abortion per year would have been even less than 50.

In the three years around legalisation (1967-1969) this had fallen to 30 deaths per million maternities but we were also starting to see deaths from legal abortions.

In the three years after this (1970-1972) the death rate from illegal abortions was about 15 per million maternities falling to 5 per million maternities in 1973-1975.

But the striking point through this six year period is that as many women were dying from legal abortions as from illegal abortions.

From 1976 on deaths from both legal and illegal abortions fell to almost negligible levels. But in each case this was due not to the legalisation of abortion but to improving standards of medical care.

A similar pattern has been observed in all developed countries. US statistics can also be viewed online.

The chart shown was used on the floor of the US Senate during the tumultuous debate on abortion in 1981. It was compiled from official US statistics and was not challenged by the pro-abortion lobbyists.

The early sharp drop occurred largely because penicillin became available. Note that after Penicillin became available to control infections, the number of deaths stabilized during the 1950s at about 250/year but by 1966, with abortion still illegal in all states, the number of deaths had dropped steadily to half that number.

In 1973 there should have been a sharp drop in women dying as abortion was made legal that year following the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court judgement. The chart, however, shows that there was no such drop.

The line didn’t even blip. The previous rate of decline actually slowed, to flatten out in the late 70s and 80s. According to the US statistics legalisation of hardly saved any women’s lives at all.

But of course what legalised abortion did do throughout the Western world was to increase dramatically the number of babies being aborted.

There are now 1.3 million abortions a year in the US and over 200,000 a year in the UK. But these are only a fraction of the total of 42 million carried out annually.

In each of these abortions a human death occurs, that is a baby dies.

In fact abortion is the leading cause of human death worldwide by some margin. In fact only 57 million people die each year from every cause other than abortion combined!

Unless you take the view that babies before birth are not human beings with rights then that must make abortion one of the most important human rights issues in the world.

Posted by Dr Peter Saunders
CMF Chief Executive

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