Illegal Abortion Myths

By Dr. Frank Beckwith

Anyone who keeps up with the many pro-choice demonstrations in the United States cannot help but see on pro-choice placards and buttons a drawing of the infamous coat hanger. This symbol of the pro-choice movement represents the many women who were harmed or killed because they either performed illegal abortions on themselves (i.e., the surgery was performed with a "coat hanger") or went to unscrupulous physicians (or "back-alley butchers"). Hence, as the argument goes, if abortion is made illegal, then women will once again be harmed. Needless to say, this argument serves a powerful rhetorical purpose. Although the thought of finding a deceased young woman with a bloody coat hanger dangling between her legs is -- to say the least -- unpleasant, powerful and emotionally charged rhetoric does not a good argument make.

The chief reason this argument fails is because it commits the fallacy of begging the question. In fact, as we shall see, this fallacy seems to lurk behind a good percentage of the popular arguments for the pro-choice position. One begs the question when one assumes what one is trying to prove. Another way of putting it is to say that the arguer is reasoning in a circle. For example, if one concludes that the Boston Celtics are the best team because no team is as good, one is not giving any reasons for this belief other than the conclusion one is trying to prove, since to claim that a team is the best team is exactly the same as saying that no team is as good.

The question-begging nature of the coat-hanger argument is not difficult to discern: only by assuming that the unborn are not fully human does the argument work. If the unborn are not fully human, then the pro-choice advocate has a legitimate concern, just as one would have in overturning a law forbidding appendicitis operations if countless people were needlessly dying of both appendicitis and illegal operations. But if the unborn are fully human, this pro-choice argument is tantamount to saying that because people die or are harmed while killing other people, the state should make it safe for them to do so.

Even some pro-choice advocates, who argue for their position in other ways, admit that the coat hanger/back-alley argument is fallacious. For example, pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren clearly recognizes that her position on abortion cannot rest on this argument without it first being demonstrated that the unborn entity is not fully human. She writes that "the fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of prohibiting it..." [9]

Although it is doubtful whether statistics can establish a particular moral position, it should be pointed out that there has been considerable debate over both the actual number of illegal abortions and the number of women who died as a result of them prior to legalization. [10] Prior to Roe, pro-choicers were fond of saying that nearly a million women every year obtained illegal abortions performed with rusty coat hangers in back-alleys that resulted in thousands of fatalities. Given the gravity of the issue at hand, it would go beyond the duty of kindness to call such claims an exaggeration, because several well-attested facts establish that the pro-choice movement was simply lying.

First, Dr. Bernard Nathanson -- who was one of the original leaders of the American pro-abortion movement and co-founder of N.A.R.A.L. (National Abortion Rights Action League), and who has since become pro-life -- admits that he and others in the abortion rights movement intentionally fabricated the number of women who allegedly died as a result of illegal abortions.

How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In N.A.R.A.L. we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always "5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year." I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose the others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the "morality" of the revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics. The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason which had to be done was permissible. [11]

Second, Dr. Nathanson's observation is borne out in the best official statistical studies available. According to the U.S. Bureau of Vital Statistics, there were a mere 39 women who died from illegal abortions in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade. [12] Dr. Andre Hellegers, the late Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Georgetown University Hospital, pointed out that there has been a steady decrease of abortion-related deaths since 1942. That year there were 1,231 deaths. Due to improved medical care and the use of penicillin, this number fell to 133 by 1968. [13] The year before the first state-legalized abortion, 1966, there were about 120 abortion-related deaths. [14]

This is not to minimize the undeniable fact that such deaths were significant losses to the families and loved ones of those who died. But one must be willing to admit the equally undeniable fact that if the unborn are fully human, these abortion-related maternal deaths pale in comparison to the 1.5 million preborn humans who die (on the average) every year. And even if we grant that there were more abortion-related deaths than the low number confirmed, there is no doubt that the 5,000 to 10,000 deaths cited by the abortion rights movement is a gross exaggeration. [15]

Third, it is simply false to claim that there were nearly a million illegal abortions per year prior to legalization. There is no reliable statistical support for this claim. [16] In addition, a highly sophisticated recent study has concluded that "a reasonable estimate for the actual number of criminal abortions per year in the prelegalization era [prior to 1967] would be from a low of 39,000 (1950) to a high of 210,000 (1961) and a mean of 98,000 per year. [17]

Fourth, it is misleading to say that pre-Roe illegal abortions were performed by "back-alley butchers" with rusty coat hangers. While president of Planned Parenthood, Dr. Mary Calderone pointed out in a 1960 American Journal of Health article that Dr. Kinsey showed in 1958 that 84% to 87% of all illegal abortions were performed by licensed physicians in good standing. Dr. Calderone herself concluded that "90% of all illegal abortions are presently done by physicians." [18] It seems that the vast majority of the alleged "back-alley butchers" eventually became the "reproductive health providers" of our present day.

Dr. Frank Beckwith is Associate Professor of Philosophy, Culture, and Law, and W. Howard Hoffman Scholar at Trinity Graduate School, Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL), California Campus. He holds a Ph.D. from Fordham University.

Prior to coming to Trinity, Professor Beckwith held full-time faculty appointments at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas(1989-96) and Whittier College (1996-97). His many books include Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights. His articles and reviews have been published in numerous journals including Journal of Social Philosophy, Public Affairs Quarterly, International Philosophical Quarterly, Focus on Law Studies, Simon Greenleaf of Law and Religion, and the Canadian Philosophical Review.


[8] John Nolt and Dennis Rohatyn, Schaum's Outline of Theory and Problems of Logic (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1988), 172. in The Problem of Abortion, 2nd ed., ed. Joel Feinberg (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984), 103.

[10] See Daniel Callahan, Abortion: Law, Choice, and Morality (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 132-36; and Stephen Krason, Abortion: Politics, Morality, and the Constitution (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), 301-10.

[11] Bernard Nathanson, M.D., Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 193.

[12] From the U.S. Bureau of Vital Statistics Center for Disease Control, as cited in Dr. and Mrs. J. C. Wilke, Abortion: Questions and Answers, rev. ed. (Cincinnati: Hayes Publishing, 1988), 101-2.

[13] From Dr. Hellegers's testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Constitutional Amendments, April 25, 1 1974; cited in John Jefferson Davis, Abortion and the Christian (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984), 75.

[14] From the U.S. Bureau of Vital Statistics Center for Disease Control, as cited in Wilke, 101-2.

[15] See Davis, 75.

[16] See note 10; Callahan, 132-36; Krason, 301-10.

[17] Barbara J. Syska, Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D., and Dennis O'Hare, "An Objective Model for Estimating Criminal Abortions and Its Implications for Public Policy," in New Perspectives on Human Abortion, ed. Thomas Hilgers, M.D., Dennis J. Horan, and David Mall (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1981), 78.

[18] Mary Calderone, "Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem," in American Journal of Health 50 (July 1960):949.

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