The abortion debate is fraught with rhetoric, as advocates on both sides of the issue spin facts to support their side of the debate. Here’s a short tour of four talking points that just don’t seem to fade.
Abortion is more dangerous
“In 1972, there were 19 deaths from illegal “back-alley abortions.” In 2017, there were 1001 complications from legal “front-alley abortions” among just 13 states that reported. Abortion is never safe for the mother or child. Abortion is more dangerous now than ever before.”
— LiveAction, in a (now-deleted) tweet, May 31, 2019
A leading researcher in 1959 wrote: “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.” So how could a procedure deemed “safe” 60 years ago “be more dangerous now than ever before”?
Live Action, an antiabortion organization, seemed to be backing up this claim with data. But in 1972, a total of 63 women died as a result of abortion. Thirty-nine, not 19, died because of illegal abortion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data from 2017 indicated that 12 states reported more than a thousand complications, though it is unclear if the data is consistently measured.
Comparing deaths to complications, however, is comparing apples to oranges. The abortion-related fatality rate from 1973 through 1977 was 2.09 deaths per 100,000 live births, according to CDC. By 2008 through 2014, the most recent set of data available, it had fallen to 0.62 deaths per 100,000 live births. Abortions now have less short-term risk to the health of the mother than carrying a pregnancy to term, according to researchers.
The antiabortion group told The Fact Checker via email that the tweet was “an editorialized view” and deleted it after we raised questions about the data. They said the assertion was based on “the lack of cohesive collection and reporting of abortion complications across all states, eyewitness accounts of emergency responses at abortion facilities, FDA reports on abortion pill deaths and thousands of serious adverse effects reported through 2016, and the fact that illegal self-managed abortions are being promoted openly and offered to women even after the FDA warned that this can be dangerous.”
Nevertheless, the risk of death from an abortion is relatively small.
Thousands will die
“Before Roe v. Wade thousands of people died every year because they didn’t have access to safe, legal abortion.”
— Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, in an interview, May 22, 2019
We previously awarded this claim Four Pinocchios.
Abortion was recorded as the official cause of death for thousands of women in the 1930s and 1940s, but the stigma associated with the procedure meant those numbers aren’t necessarily entirely accurate.
By the 1950s, antibiotics such as penicillin and improved methods of contraception helped to curb the mortality rate, which continued to fall in the 1960s, after states loosened restrictions. By 1965, the National Center for Health Statistics reported 235 deaths from abortion. Although reporting had improved by that time, a leading researcher wrote, “Total mortality from illegal abortions was undoubtedly larger than that figure, but in all likelihood it was under 1,000.” By 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade, official reports said fewer than 100 women died as a result of abortions — legal or illegal.
In other words, it’s unlikely if Roe v. Wade were repealed that the number of women who would die from abortion-related procedures would surpass the number of women who died before the advent of antibiotics. So this talking point is false.
Late abortions are often due to a woman’s health
“For women that are really in that difficult position, so-called late-term abortions — some people try to make [it as though] that commonly happens. That happens when a woman’s life is being threatened and the viability of the fetus as well is compromised.”
— Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), in a town hall, April 16,2019
“About 1% of abortions occur after 24 weeks, and when they do occur, they are often due to complex circumstances. Just take Alexis’ story.”
— Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen, in a tweet, Feb. 5, 2019
"The evidence over many years shows that to the extent that an abortion is preformed after 20-24 weeks those are very very limited circumstances and necessary for the life of the mother or for other reasons.”
— Former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro, on Meet the Press Daily, June 7, 2019
Late-term abortion is not a medical term, but a colloquial and political one. It generally refers to abortions that happen after 20 weeks, or about halfway through pregnancy. In 2015, 638,169 “legal induced abortions were reported to CDC from 49 reporting areas.” The vast majority, 91.1 percent or about 580,000, were preformed at or before 13 weeks of gestation. But 1.3 percent of those (or a little more than 8,000) abortions took place at or after 21 weeks.
Abortion rights advocates often note abortions after 20 weeks are rare and cite fetal viability and protecting a mother’s health as reasons they oppose legislation that would ban them. Antiabortion advocates disagree with this characterization, arguing that viable fetuses are being aborted. So what’s going on here?
CDC told us via email it does not collect “more granular data [on abortions] after 21 weeks because the numbers are tiny.” In other words, there is no clear data on whether most abortions after 21 weeks happen before or after the point of fetal viability. (As we’ve previously reported, viability differs from pregnancy to pregnancy, though the gestational age of viability is generally pegged at 24 to 28 weeks. Some, however, have argued that viability can be as soon as 22 weeks.)
But abortion rights advocates aren’t arguing about viability. The question is: How many of the abortions after 20 weeks are because the fetus isn’t viable or to protect the health of the mother? There is no conclusive data to answer this question.
Diana Green Foster, a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, was the lead researcher on the largest study of women who have abortions after 20 weeks for reasons other than fetal anomaly or life endangerment. The study found these women tended to have abortions for reasons similar to those of women who had abortions earlier in pregnancy.
Foster told The Fact Checker that “most abortions after 20 weeks are happening between 20 and 24 weeks and not beyond.” Women having abortions during that time period tended to be women who had “a whole bunch of access barriers trying to get in to get their abortion,” but that “doesn’t characterize women having abortions in the third trimester.”
Foster noted that the majority of abortions from 20 to 24 weeks happen in clinics, while the majority of abortions for fetal anomaly and maternal health happen in hospitals — making data on what happened where more difficult to obtain.
Babies are delivered and then killed
“Lawmakers in New York cheered as they passed legislation to allow babies to be ripped from the womb of their mother.”
— President Trump, in a speech, March 2, 2019
“And then you have this governor in Virginia — you heard that. The baby is born and you wrap the baby beautifully and you talk to the mother about the possible execution of the baby. … And to protect innocent life, I called on Congress to immediately pass legislation prohibiting extreme late-term abortion.”
— President Trump, at a campaign rally, May 8, 2019
President Trump suggests New York lawmakers passed and Virginia lawmakers proposed laws that would allow infanticide, or the crime of killing a child within a year of birth. But infanticide is illegal. So what is Trump referring to?
Erin Perrine, deputy communications director for Trump’s reelection campaign, pointed us to remarks by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Virginia Del. Kathy Tran (D) from January. (Both Tran and Northam said that they misspoke and that their remarks were misinterpreted.)
Still, Perrine told us via email, “This was Democrat legislation publicly defended by the Democrat governor in Virginia. That is irrefutable. Fact check? True.” She added, “In New York, Democrats passed a broad late-term, third-trimester abortion bill into law.”
The president’s claims of “execution” is aimed at striking an emotional tone rather than an exact representation of what can happen under the law. But antiabortion advocates were still fiercely opposed to both the New York law and the Virginia proposal. So let’s examine the language.
New York’s Reproductive Health Act decriminalized abortion and codified a woman’s right to have an abortion in New York: “According to a practitioner’s reasonable and good faith professional judgment based on the facts of the patient’s case: the patient is within twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy or there is an absence of fetal viability or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”
The language in Roe v. Wade is very similar. It reads, “For the stage subsequent to viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.”
Katie Watson J.D., a lawyer and bioethicist at Northwestern University, told us, “The United States has been governed by this life and health exception for 46 years nationwide.”
But Steven Aden, the chief legal officer and general counsel for Americans United for Life, explained it was unclear what would happen in the event a doctor performed an abortion beyond these bounds, given that abortion was no longer in New York’s criminal code.
Virginia House Bill 2491 would have edited the state’s current law. It reduced the number of doctors required to sign off on third-trimester abortions from three to one, and removed a waiting period and restrictions on where an abortion could take place. It dropped the qualifier that continuing pregnancy would have to “substantially and irremediably” harm a woman’s mental or physical health. Essentially, it loosened access to abortion — including after 24 weeks.
Both New York’s RHA and Virginia’s House Bill 2491 are nuanced pieces of legislation that legal arguments and precedents can define or refine. But neither comes anywhere close to explicitly allowing infanticide, as the president suggests.
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