Thursday, January 25, 2007

The myth that just won't die

Anti-abortion chain marks Roe v. Wade anniversary
Kris Hamel, founding member and organizer of DANFORR, Detroit Action Network For Reproductive Rights, is among those that see the Supreme Court decision a different way. .... Before the ruling in 1973, "an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 women died each year in the United State as a result of a million unsafe, illegal abortions," Hamel said.

Leaving us with the question: Is Ms. Hamel misinformed or is she lying? The "5,000 to 10,000 deaths" claim has been so totally debunked for decades now. It was repudiated by the very man who generated the numbers. But, as Bernard Nathanson said, it's a useful number, so despite the fact that it's a load of dingo's kidneys, it gets bandied about anyway.

Where did they come from? Here's an interesting exercise: when you see the 5,000 - 10,000 claim, check and see who they cite (if they bother to cite any source at all). Odds are it will be Lawrence "Larry" Lader or some other late 1960's early 1970's abortion guru. This gives the impression that Lader (or whoever) looked at whatever the then-current situation was and wrote up his findings. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The 5,000 - 10,000 claim is one of the standard abortion promotion tricks: misleading citing. Often you'll see abortion advocates citing some recent (or relatively recent) "research." But when you check their source, you'll find that the source cites an even older source. And when you check that source, you'll find that it cites yet another, older source. You'll go round and round. (I've often joked that tracking down pro-choice original source material gives me motion sickness.) Eventually, you'll find the original source. If you're lucky.

In the case of the 5,000 - 10,000 claims, the original source was a book -- Abortion, Spontaneous and Induced -- published in 1936 by Dr. Frederick Taussig, a leading proponent of legalization of abortion. Taussig calculated an urban abortion rate based on records of a New York City birth control clinic, and a rural abortion rate based on some numbers given to him by some doctors in Iowa. He took a guess at a mortality rate, multiplied by his strangely generated estimate of how many criminal abortions were taking place, and presto! A myth is born!

Even if Taussig's calculations, by some mathematical miracle, had been correct, they still would have been out of date by the end of WWII. Antibiotics and blood transfusions changed the face of medicine. And you will notice that abortion proponents are all too aware of how dated Taussig's numbers are -- why else would they play Musical Cites instead of simply citing Taussig in the first place? But not only are the Taussig numbers dated, they were never accurate to begin with. At a conference in 1942, Taussig himself appologized for using "the wildest estimates" to generate a bogus number.

Although it took Taussig six years to reject his own faulty calculations, at least he did admit that he'd been wrong. Other abortion enthusiasts lacked Taussig's compunctions. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL, admitted that he and his associates knew that the claims of 5,000 to 10,000 criminal abortion deaths were false. They bandied them about anyway, Nathanson confessed, because they were useful. This, too, is old news -- Nathanson came clean over twenty years ago.

How many criminal abortion deaths were there, then? An excellent question, and a tricky one to answer. Before the Centers for Disease Control began Abortion Surveillance Activities in 1968, and began looking at abortion mortality in earnest in 1972, all abortion deaths were typically counted together: legal (or "therapeutic"), illegal, and spontaneous (miscarriage). However, even without the CDC's intervention, public health officials were watching maternal mortality in general, and abortion mortality in particular, very carefully. After all, abortion itself was a crime, and an abortion in which the mother died could well result in a homicide investigation. This was not petty crime; the police, coroners, funeral directors, and hospital administrators were very attentive to possible criminal abortion deaths.

Peer-reviewed articles published in the decades before Roe gave varied estimates of the number of abortion deaths annually. One study determined that there were approximately 1.3 criminal abortion deaths per year in Minnesota from 1950 through 1965. Commentary on that study pointed out that if researchers combined known criminal abortion deaths with suspected criminal abortion deaths, 4.4 women were dying from criminal abortions per year in Tennessee from 1955 through 1965. A study in California reported 30 total abortion deaths per year during a period studied from 1957 through 1965, and as many as 87% of those abortion deaths were due to criminal abortions. This meant a maximum death rate in California of 26 women per year during that period.

But what can that tell us about mortality nationwide? In 1975 (the first year for which complete numbers are available), Minnesota reported roughly 1.6% of all legal abortions, Tennessee reported about 1.7%, and California about 22%. It is reasonable to assume that the proportion of illegal abortions in each state before legalization would be similar to the proportion of legal abortions in each state after Roe. If each of those states had been representative of the nation at large, that would put the national death rate at 78, 225, and 104, respectively. If we combine the totals, we find 31.7 criminal abortion deaths per year in three states, which represented roughly 26% of abortion deaths. This would mean approximately 123 criminal abortion deaths annually in the decades just before Roe.

Are these numbers realistic at all? Mary Calderone, who was then Medical Director of Planned Parenthood, reported on a conference studying abortion in America. She indicated that in 1957, there were 260 abortion deaths nationwide. That number included all abortions: legal, illegal, and spontaneous. The calculations based on state maternal mortality investigations are fairly close to Calderone's numbers based on national data. These numbers were based on alerting doctors, law enforcement, coroners, and hospital administrators, along with public records officials, of their responsibility to report these deaths. Taussig's estimates of 5,000 to 10,000 deaths would have meant that Minnesota authorities should have found 80 to 160 deaths per year when all their efforts could only find one or two. Tennessee should have been finding 85 to 170, rather than 4 or 5. And California should have been finding 1100 to 2200, rather than roughly 26.

Once more, with feeling:
  • In 1936, Frederick Taussig announced that there were 5,000 to 10,000 maternal deaths from criminal abortion annually in the United States.
  • In 1942, Taussig admitted that his calculations had been wrong, and that there was no way as many as 5,000 women were dying, much less 10,000.
  • From 1940 through 1970, abortion mortality fell from nearly 1,500 to a little over 100.
  • In 1972, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 39 women died from criminal abortions.

Are we supposed to believe that public health officials in Minnesota, Tennessee, and California, in cooperation with law enforcement, the medical community, coroners, and hospital administrators, were that far off? Are we supposed to believe that among abortion supporters, Planned Parenthood's Medical Director, the AMA, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control were all that clueless, when they were searching frantically for deaths they could blame on abortion laws? Are we to believe that only Taussig's numbers -- generated with admittedly faulty calculations over sixty years ago -- are the true measure of the cost of criminal abortion in the United States? This is what abortion promoters would have you believe when they cite Taussig's discredited numbers.

You would have to go back to before WWII to find as many as 1,000 women dying from criminal abortions annually in the United States. By 1967, when the first states started allowing very limited elective abortions, the number had fallen almost 90%, to 110. Criminal abortion deaths clearly were diminishing dramatically without taking the radical step of legalization. Other strategies, such as liberalizing sterilization laws, providing competent counseling to frightened pregnant women to help them overcome their fears about having their babies, and teaching doctors better diagnostic and treatment strategies for addressing criminal abortion complications, were based on sound research and were likely to reduce criminal abortion deaths to an unavoidable minimum. (As long as some women insist on having abortions, some of them will die, no matter how diligently we try to protect them.) When current strategies are working, it's foolish to throw a monkey wrench into the works. The strategy of improved medical care was solving the problem. Abortion advocates might have done well to listen to the old adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

 Illegal Abortion Deaths

Year Deaths
1940 1,407
1945 744
1950 263
1955 224
1960 251
1965 201
1970 119

If you'd like to point out that the reporter would have done better to check the reality behind a quote before printing it, the addresses are below:

Diana Dillaber Murray
Pontiac & General Assignment Reporter

And, like me, you might want to cc the editors. (I didn't know which editor would be supervising Ms. Murray on this story, so I cc'd all of them.)

Glenn Gilbert
Executive Editor

Julie Jacobson
Assistant Managing Editor - Local News

Lee Dryden
Community News Editor

Allan P. Adler
Special Projects Editor

John Cusumano
Senior Editor


Also see LTI's excellent commentary, citing Mary Calderone, then Medical Director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America:
Fact No. 3—Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not just to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions as done by physicians. .... Two corollary factors must be mentioned here: first, chemotherapy and antibiotics have come in, benefiting all surgical procedures as well as abortion. Second, and even more important, the conference estimated that 90 per cent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians. Call them what you will, abortionists or anything else, they are still physicians, trained as such; and many of them are in good standing in their communities. They must do a pretty good job if the death rate is as low as it is.


Anonymous said...

It would be nice to know what article you are talking about before you say to write the editors. Reality behind what quote? If the reporter was printing what somebody said, should they change what the person said? I don't believe it is the reporters responsibility or right to dispute what an interviewee is saying, only to report what they have said. What message is it you want to send to the editors of Ms Murray? Maybe you should be after the person who made the quote?

Christina Dunigan said...

I provided a link to the article in question.

And when a reporter lets a quote that's supposedly relaying a fact stand unchallenged, from a "reputable" source, he or she is allowing it to be asserted as fact and is conveying the impression that it's true.

Anonymous said...

I appologize, I didn't realize that that was a link at the top. Maybe you could make a note pointing that out?
Now that I have read the article, I see that the numbers in question are only a small part of the article. Besides, I don't believe that your numbers are correct either. In a country with millions of people, that there would only be a few thousand deaths due to illegal abortion, doesn't make sense. How many would never have been reported? Back then, something like that could ruin a family's name. More often than not, I'm sure, it would have been very well hidden. I don't think there is any way to know for sure, one way or the other.
I still believe the reporter did a fine job and did nothing wrong. Do you know what the reporter believes in? Pro-life or pro-choice? You can't tell by reading the story. I don't know, and I'm sure you don't either. It didn't matter to her editor, I'm sure, who assigned her to the story. She just had to go report on what she saw and heard. I'm suprised you would complain about the article, it seems to give a small look at both sides. She was being very objective. Or do you believe there is only one side to the story? I think you could do more for your cause by trying to deal with the person who was quoted, Kris Hamel, as it was her opinion, not the reporter's.
Personally, I do not believe it is your right, or any one elses, to say what an individual can or can't do, when it comes to health and well being. Period.

Christina Dunigan said...

Point 1: Doctors, hospitals, undertakers, police, and public health officials were always on the lookout for suspicious deaths. An anonymous tip could be enough to get a woman exhumed. It's not like nobody was paying any attention. here is more information.

Point 2: By having an abortion, a woman is deciding that somebody else needs to die. That's being far more intrusive in somebody's life than anything else.

Anonymous said...

"Point 2: By having an abortion, a woman is deciding that somebody else needs to die."

Maybe somebody else is a better choice than the woman herself.

It is her CHOICE, not yours. You do not know her, her circumstances or her life. Or why the choice must to be made. There should always be a choice, because there are many different reasons to end up having to make a choice. Besides, you won't be there to deal with the results of her choice after it has been made. No matter what her choice was or what consequences it brings her.

And I will tell you that making that choice will be a long, drawn out, depressing, horrible ordeal to have to go through. And to live with afterwords, no matter the outcome. And you won't be there to help her through it.

But maybe it's better if you help to take away that choice? You may be signing her death sentence in doing so. Who has the right to decide who has to die? Do you? If so, the choice is yours.

Lets now say that I have the right to tell you what your choice will be.

Christina Dunigan said...

Why should ANYBODY have the right to decide that somebody else should be put to death to benefit them? If abortion is okay, then so is what John List did to his family.