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Women's Outreach and Resource Collective | A collaborative community for advocates of gender equity and social justice


Supporting Women’s Health Does Not Necessitate Legalizing Abortion

By: Rebecca Stapleford

Safe abortion is almost always equated with legalized abortion, and we are often told that the only way to reduce maternal mortality is to legalize abortion.

This is a common claim, but is quite baseless.

In the first place, it completely ignores that fact that developed nations that have criminalized abortion, like Ireland, Chile, Poland, and Malta, all have extremely low maternal mortality rates, while developing nations that have legalized abortion, like South Africa, Guyana, and India, still have high, and in some cases extremely high, maternal mortality rates. The biggest determinant of whether or not a woman will die from an unsafe abortion is not the legality of abortion in her country but whether or not she lives in a developing (Third World) nation or a developed (First World) nation.

Even the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research institute dedicated to advocating for the legality of abortion worldwide, admits this. “Nearly half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe, and nearly all unsafe abortions (98 percent) occur in developing countries. In the developing world, 50 percent of all abortions are unsafe, compared with just 6 percent in the developed world.” Furthermore, according to the World Health Organization, only 8 percent of all maternal mortalities worldwide are due to unsafe abortion, with the rest caused largely by unsafe childbirth.

Here in the United States, the threat of the bloody coat hanger is used whenever new abortion restrictions are being debated, but that, too, is a boldfaced lie. Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone, an abortion rights supporter who founded the pro-choice organization SIECUS, and who served as national medical director of Planned Parenthood from 1964 to 1969, exposes this as a myth in her 1960 article in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health, interestingly entitled “Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem.” In it she writes:

“Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not only to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions as done by physicians. In 1957 there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind. In New York City in 1921 there were 144 abortion deaths, in 1951 there were only 15; and, while the abortion death was going down so strikingly in that 30-year period, we know what happened to the population and the birth rate. 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 percent 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…. So remember fact number three; abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous, because it is being done well by physicians.”

The conference that Dr. Calderone is referring to was a 1955 Planned Parenthood sponsored national conference on illegal abortion, which was comprised of OB-GYNs, medical examiners, public health researchers, and social workers, all very familiar with illegal abortions. Legalization did not change who performed abortions, but it did enable abortion providing doctors to be much more open about what they did.

Indeed, the case of Chile proves that it is not necessary to legalize abortion in order to reduce maternal mortality and to dramatically improve women’s health. Abortion was completely criminalized in Chile in 1989, but their maternal mortality rate continued to fall, which this peer-reviewed study attributes to increased education, better access to healthcare, lower poverty rates, and better access to contraception. Even Chile’s death rate from unsafe abortion continued to fall after criminalization, which this scientific institute attributed to the same factors mentioned above, as well as increased support for pregnant women at risk for illegal abortion, which increases the likelihood that they will give birth.

Pro-choice ideologues try to win over the soft middle through scare tactics, promising back alleys filled with women dying from botched abortions should abortion ever become illegal. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, founder of NARAL Pro-Choice America, admits this in his 1979 book, Aborting America. He points out that the claims that thousands of women died each year of botched abortions prior to Roe v. Wade were false statistics, peddled by NARAL to get public support for legalizing abortion. “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 our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?” It’s time to hang up the bloody coat hanger, and to finally have an honest dialogue on abortion, fetal rights, women’s rights, and women’s health.

WORC UGA accepts freelance submissions, or responses to articles written by staff writers. If you are interested in freelancing, or writing a response to this or any other article, please email


[Image: NGOBox]


AbortionHealthcareMedical CareParentingreproductive health

worcuga • November 20, 2014

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  1. UGA feminist November 21, 2014 - 12:06 am Reply

    WORC…I cannot believe you published this. When I saw it on Fb, I posted a huge, angry comment and then quickly deleted it because I realized that I’m more saddened by this piece than anything. Why are you pandering to fake allies that under the guise of ‘women’s health’ assert their anti-choice agenda? This article is well-written. It’s also well-researched. But that doesn’t change how utterly irresponsible this argument is. What is the author suggesting here? That abortion be criminalized (oh look, other developed countries do it too!!! no big deal guyz), and that women should still just secretly get abortions because ~they won’t die~ hooray! Seriously? Are you all aware that when something becomes illegal…that means people that participate in said legal activity can go to jail, right? Or be murdered by crazed vigilante justice idiots that have murdered abortion providers even though abortions are LEGAL. Imagine if abortions were ILLEGAL how justified anyone and everyone would feel about utterly destroying the lives of any woman that wasn’t ready to have a child.

  2. UGA feminist November 21, 2014 - 12:07 am Reply

    I’m going to copy and paste what has happened in El Salvador, according to Amnesty International. Abortions are criminalized there:
    1. Women and girls found guilty of having an abortion face a prison sentence of two to eight years. Health care providers who assist them face up to 12 years in prison.
    2. Women who have had miscarriages have been charged with aggravated homicide, a charge which can bring a sentence of up to 50 years in prison. Amnesty International has documented the cases of many women who have been sentenced to decades in prison after having a miscarriage.
    3. El Salvador banned abortion in all circumstances in 1998.
    4. Last year the National Civil Police recorded that 16 women and girls were charged with the crime of abortion, six of them were under 17 years old at the time of the alleged offences.
    5. Because of the ban, clandestine abortions are common. According to the Ministry of Health, there were 19,290 abortions in El Salvador between 2005 and 2008. More than a quarter of them were undergone by girls under 18. The actual figure is likely to be much higher.
    6. Common methods used by women and girls to terminate a pregnancy include: ingesting rat poison or other pesticides, and thrusting knitting needles, pieces of wood and other sharp objects into the cervix, and the use of the ulcer treatment drug misoprostol, which has become widely used to induce abortions.
    7. According to the latest World Health Organisation figures, 11 per cent of women and girls who underwent a clandestine abortion in El Salvador died as a result. However, due to the secrecy surrounding the practice the true figure is likely to be much higher.
    8. Suicide accounts for 57 per cent of the deaths of pregnant females aged 10 to 19 in El Salvador, though it is likely many more cases have gone unreported.
    9. A newspaper poll in 2013 revealed 74 per cent of people polled in El Salvador favoured an abortion when a woman’s life is at risk.
    10. El Salvador has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America. According to the National Family Health Survey, more than one-fifth (23 per cent) of all teenagers aged between 15 and 19 in El Salvador have been pregnant at least once. Nearly half of them were under 18 and didn’t intend to get pregnant.
    11. Last year the National Civil Police registered 1,346 rapes of women and girls. Nearly two-thirds were aged under 15 or classified as “mentally incapacitated” and unable to give informed consent either because they were rendered unconscious or because of their mental health.
    12. There is only one women’s refuge in El Salvador. It can accommodate just 35 women and children.

  3. Rebecca Stapleford November 21, 2014 - 11:15 am Reply

    I understand your concerns and I certainly don’t agree with sentencing women to prison for miscarriage or with the horrifying lack of care available to pregnant women in El Salvador. However, you seem to be operating under the assumption that embryos and fetuses should not be considered human beings with human rights, because I’m sure that you wouldn’t approve of legalizing infanticide because some women don’t realize that they aren’t ready to be parents until after they give birth, like my friend.

  4. Rebecca Stapleford November 21, 2014 - 11:18 am Reply

    Actually some bioethicists don’t believe that infants are persons, and therefore support legalizing infanticide to solve social problems like child abuse and neglect….here’s an article from the Journal of Medical Ethics arguing for that position…

  5. Rebecca Stapleford November 21, 2014 - 11:23 am Reply

    Also, estimating illegal abortion rates is very difficult and prone to methodological flaws, as this study on illegal abortion estimates in Mexico amply demonstrates…. Most estimates of illegal abortion are overestimates, when the same methodology that they use is used to estimate legal abortions, and then compared to the number of legal abortions reported, it is an tenfold overestimate.

  6. Rebecca Stapleford November 21, 2014 - 11:30 am Reply

    Also, you seem to think that you own feminism. The reality is, we have feminist orgs like Feminists for Life and Feminists for Non-Violent Choices. I am just as much as a feminist as you are. I am a proud queer woman who supports marriage equality, and pretty much most every progressive cause that deals with gender equality, but because I don’t agree with the functionalist bias than denies the unborn their rights, and because I believe that all parents, regardless of gender, have a natural obligation to provide the basic level of care to their offspring, especially if no one else is able to do it, apparently to you I am not a feminist.

  7. UGA feminist November 21, 2014 - 1:34 pm Reply

    I agree with you on not thinking that you are a feminist. I absolutely do not. Not supporting women’s choices as to what they do or don’t do with their bodies will never be feminist. You can call yourself whatever you want, and affiliate with whatever you want but I fight for the rights of the women that actually exist, not what grows in their bodies. If a woman tells me she doesn’t want to have a baby, I believe her. And I support her. Period.

  8. turtlesarepretty November 21, 2014 - 1:46 pm Reply

    I didn’t get the sense you were condoning criminalization of abortion. It seems you were just stating that the supposed dangers posited by some pro-choice advocates, collectively or individually, are a strawman to a human rights argument. Am I right?

  9. Rebecca Stapleford November 21, 2014 - 1:49 pm Reply

    Do you support people’s rights to do whatever they want with their bodies, including using illegal drugs and going to school unvaccinated? If a woman wants to intentionally disable her fetus because she is disabled herself and wants to raise a child like her, should she have the right to intentionally do that to her fetus while the fetus is still inside her? If we lived in a universe in which all children needed donations of blood and bone marrow from their biological fathers in order to survive, wouldn’t it then be reasonable to make those types of donations a legal parental obligation like paying child support, because then those types of donations would be an ordinary level of care, and not extraordinary at all the way that they are now?

  10. Rebecca Stapleford November 21, 2014 - 1:51 pm Reply

    Well, I am. But also, I feel that the bodily rights arguments posed by the pro-choice movement are better than this, because while I don’t agree with them, they do have some logic behind them and are not strawmen.

  11. turtlesarepretty November 21, 2014 - 2:18 pm Reply

    I personally support the right for a person to do what they want with their bodies. However, that certainly doesn’t mean I condone them. It is their body, and they are free to do as they choose. Self-mutilation, drugs, abortion, what have you. I may not personally condone some activities as MY cup of tea, but I certainly shouldn’t have anyone to tell me what to do with my body.

    No she doesn’t get to disable the child. The child has to live with that. An aborted fetus doesn’t. The child now has a life of it’s own. The parent should also not be able to choose to mutilate it’s genetalia either, of which is disabling. I digress.

    The case for infanticide is interesting as it’s probably in most cases the remedy to another problem- Abortion not being legal. They end up with something they don’t want, and probably didn’t want in the beginning, leading to abuse and a slew of other horrific actions.
    I think for the much fewer cases like your friend, who say they didn’t want a kid until after giving birth, actually had second thoughts throughout the entire pregnancy but couldn’t fathom abortion as an option because of social stigma and oppression from a right wing mind set of it being “wrong”. I would venture that if she lived somewhere where abortion was an option without the said strings attached, she would have taken it. BUT if that’s not the case, and this would lead to the smallest cases I believe, then we answer problems to orphaned and/or unwanted children, which in a world with legalized abortion, would be much less of a figure.

    Lastly, yes. I believe it would be an obvious choice to donate blood or bone marrow to save anothers life, so long as it doesn’t risk yours. And if it does, even then that’s your own decision because, well, it’s your body. And if you choose not to save anothers life, once again, you guessed it.

  12. Rachael November 21, 2014 - 2:51 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for posting this. It is a hard topic to talk about and I know people would rather tell you to “shut up” than to tell the truth. I am a pro life feminist, and I am not sure whether you identify with that as well, but that’s what I identify as and it is so hard to find article like this. Everyone says you basically have to be pro abortion or gtfo, which is really messed up, because I want to be considered an equal to men in the work place and at home and on the street, and to not live in a world where women are blamed for the sexual assault inflicted on them by others. So yes, I am a feminist. When people say feminism’s main concern is pro-abortion, they are losing a huge (and crucial) audience. We all believe different things, and I think you shed light on a very important point of view that doesn’t get talked about much. Cause vs Correlation is a crucial consideration, we have ALL learned this in college, so I am surprised that people are upset at you for implementing this perspective of “question everything” and discussing other related factors. I assume they are upset because it is against their agenda, not upset that you are being open minded and questioning cause and correlation. Thanks for your post.

  13. Rebecca Stapleford November 21, 2014 - 4:17 pm Reply

    Actually, my friend wanted the kid so that she could get her boyfriend to marry her. when that didn’t work out, she changed her mind.
    Also, I am disabled, my little sister severely so. Life with a disability is hard, but it is a lot better than not existing at all. Taking someone’s life is much worse than merely disabling them. If a woman should not be able to disable her child in utero, then she certainly should not be able to kill her child in utero.
    Also, I view bodily integrity pretty highly, but I view parental responsibility pretty highly as well. And anyway, with the exception of RU-486, every abortion method not only merely separates the fetus or embryo from the mother’s body, but also directly attacks it’s body through poisoning or dismembering it. “When we do a suction curettage abortion…the catheter as it approaches the fetus, you know, tears it and kills it at that instant inside the uterus.” Dr. Martin Haskell (US District Court: May 27, 1999) Suction curettage is the most common 1st trimester abortion procedure, according to the pro-choice Alan Guttmacher Institute.

  14. Rebecca Stapleford November 21, 2014 - 4:20 pm Reply

    Racheal, I am a disabled, queer feminist. And I appreciate your kind words….

  15. worcuga November 21, 2014 - 5:53 pm Reply

    Thank you all for your comments on this article. We appreciate your engagement with WORC, and most of the dialogue surrounding this issue. However, we do not condone discriminatory and hateful speech. WORC does not support any political ideology given that we are a collective; we are a voice for the views of all those interested in gender equity and social justice. We ask that this remain a respectful and productive discussion. Thank you.

    For more information, please visit our about page:

  16. Anna November 23, 2014 - 12:15 pm Reply

    After reading this article and the comments following it, I am deeply saddened at how misunderstood this article was. I identify as a pro-life feminist, and I believe that we can do so much better for women than abortion. This article was extremely well-written and brought to light an issue with the argument that if abortion is made illegal then women will die from illegal abortions.

    To “UGA FEMINIST”: I read all of those facts you pasted about situations in which women were incarcerated in other countries because abortion was made illegal. Let me make something clear: I think it is incredibly sad that women are being incarcerated for having illegal abortions. I certainly don’t want that happening and I definitely don’t want women dying from unsafe illegal abortions.

    Thank you to Rebecca Stapleford for writing the article, and to the WORC for posting it on the blog!

  17. UGA feminist November 24, 2014 - 1:12 am Reply

    Hello again. After a few days of reflection and reading WORC’s comment that I think was mostly directed at me (rightly so), I just wanted to say that my delivery was a bit harsh. I’m still learning how to express views that I’m EXTREMELY passionate about without being a general asshole. Clearly I’m failing. I still think that criminalizing abortion creates a horrific climate for women, and am vehemently against it. And I think that giving women choices—with one of them being termination of pregnancy—is THE best thing we can give them. However, since you all identify as feminists, outside of this issue I’m sure there is a ton of stuff we can all agree on. And Rebecca, being a queer, disabled feminist is really badass. I’m sure you do great things. Have a happy thanksgiving everyone.

  18. Rebecca Stapleford November 24, 2014 - 10:31 am Reply

    Thank you! You’re right, on 90% of the issues we probably agree. Obviously I disagree with you on the abortion issue, but like Anna, I don’t support putting women in prison for illegal abortions, just the illegal abortion providers. Also, I think that El Salvador can be like Chile and improve maternal mortality and the status of women without legalizing abortion, the way that Chile has, but I appreciate your concern for women’s well-being and rights. And hey, don’t worry about it. I’ve been an asshole too before when it comes to subjects that I’m passionate about. The important thing is to realize it and move on.

  19. R. Leigh Peller November 24, 2014 - 1:45 pm Reply

    I just want to reiterate what Anna said: “Thank you to Rebecca Stapleford for writing the article, and to the WORC for posting it on the blog!” YES! As a [vegetarian, Green Party, atheist, questioning] feminist who opposes abortion, it’s so encouraging to see this kind of dialogue and perspective.

    We’re in a tough place – on one hand, we’re scolded for supposedly not doing enough to end the root causes of abortion or for caring about human rights outside of the womb, but when we do try to work together on those common ground issues, we’re told to leave the space because of our stance on abortion. We’ve settled on a dichotomous binary system that pits feminism against opposition to abortion.

    All systems of hierarchy and power are interconnected, so we must work to dismantle all forms of domination concurrently. Seeking control over others as a result of our own oppression is a bandaid approach to the kyriarchy that oppresses us all.

    “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. ” -Audre Lorde

  20. Rebecca Stapleford January 5, 2015 - 1:01 pm Reply

    What specific jumps in assumptions did I make, in your opinion? I’m always interested in hearing thoughtful feedback…

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