Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen has claimed, over and over again, that “thousands of women died every year pre-Roe,” referring to Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws on abortion. On Wednesday, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave Wen “Four Pinocchios” for this false claim, noting that “these numbers were debunked in 1969 — 50 years ago — by a statistician celebrated by Planned Parenthood.”
Wen has repeated the claim at least three times, trying to scare Americans into supporting Roe v. Wade.
“We face a real situation where Roe could be overturned. And we know what will happen, which is that women will die. Thousands of women died every year pre-Roe,” she told a Dallas TV station in March. “Before Roe v. Wade, thousands of women died every year — and because of extreme attacks on safe, legal abortion care, this could happen again right here in America,” she tweeted in April. “We’re not going to go back in time to a time before Roe when thousands of women died every year because they didn’t have access to essential health care,” she repeated in May.
When Kessler asked Planned Parenthood about the data behind such a claim, the abortion giant directed him to a 2014 policy statement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG): “It is estimated that before 1973, 1.2 million U.S. women resorted to illegal abortion each year and that unsafe abortions caused as many as 5,000 annual deaths.” While the ACOG policy statement includes many citations, it did not provide a citation for the 5,000 annual deaths number.
Kate Connors, an ACOG spokeswoman, referred Kessler to a 1958 report that estimated induced abortion between 200,000 and 1,200,000 per year, noting that “there is no objective basis for the selection of a particular figure between these two estimates.” The ACOG took the high-end estimate, but gave no mortality rates or explanation for the 5,000 annual deaths statistic.
After more sleuthing, Kessler found a footnote in a document from NARAL Pro-Choice America. The document cited Frederick Taussig’s, “Abortion Spontaneous and Induced: Medical and Social Aspects,” published in 1936.
Taussig, who died in 1943, calculated the number of deaths from abortion was between 8,000 and 10,000 per year. “But it was not a very rigorous calculation, based on a mix of theory and data from the United States and Germany,” Kessler wrote. “Just 13 states recorded such data in 1927 and 15 in 1928. That added up to 912 deaths from abortion a year. Because the states represented 26 percent of the birth registration of the United States, Taussig multiplied it to come up with 3,508 a year. He then rounded it up to 4,000 to account for oversampling of rural areas. Then he assumed half of the deaths were concealed, so he doubled it to 8,000 and concluded it was no more than 10,000.”
Assumption after assumption after assumption. Five years earlier, Taussig had even estimated 15,000 deaths, but in his book he wrote, “I am convinced my previous estimates were too high.” In 1942, he revised the number again, down to 5,000.
These estimates came before the rise of antibiotics such as penicillin, which made medical procedures far less risky. Researcher Christopher Tietze argued in 1948 that the number of maternal abortion deaths was rapidly declining because contraception reduced pregnancies, abortionists were getting better at avoiding infections, and sulfa drugs and penicillin saved lives.
Tietze collected data showing 2,677 deaths from abortion in 1933, compared with 888 in 1945, with much of the decline in septic cases associated with illegal abortions. By 1959, Planned Parenthood medical director Mary Steichen Calderone wrote that “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. 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.”
Kessler admitted that abortion stigma justifies the assumption that many abortions were underreported, but the stigma was reduced in the 1960s.
“Some 30 years ago it was judged that such deaths might number 5,000 to 10,000 per year, but this rate, even if it was approximately correct at the time, cannot be anywhere near the true rate now,” Tietze and his wife Sarah Lewit wrote in Scientific American in 1969. “The total number of deaths from all causes among women of reproductive age in the U.S. is not more than about 50,000 per year. The National Center for Health Statistics listed 235 deaths from abortion in 1965. Total mortality from illegal abortions was undoubtedly larger than that figure, but in all likelihood it was under 1,000.”
Planned Parenthood honored Tietze and Lewit with the Margaret Sanger Award in 1973, for their research in “identifying the effects of abortion policy on maternal health.”
The Centers for Disease Control started collecting data on maternal abortion mortality in 1972, the year before Roe. In 1972, the number of deaths in the United States from legal abortions was 24 and the number from illegal abortions was 39.
Stanley Henshaw, an abortion statistician at the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute from 1979 to 2013, told The Washington Post he agreed with Tietze’s 1969 conclusions. “In the 1960s, the officially recorded number of deaths from illegal induced abortion was under 300 per year. While there were undoubtedly other unreported abortion deaths, it is unlikely that the actual number was over 1,000,” he said. “The figure of 5,000 to 10,000 is reasonable for the 1930s, when there were probably more abortions and less effective treatment of complications.”
“In my opinion, if Roe v. Wade were overturned, women would turn to relatively safe medications that can be purchased over the Internet,” Henshaw added. “There would be some deaths but probably not as many as there were in the 1960s.”
The Washington Post article concluded with a scathing indictment of Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen and the ACOG. “Wen is a doctor, and the ACOG is made up of doctors. They should know better than to peddle statistics based on data that predates the advent of antibiotics,” he wrote. “These numbers were debunked in 1969 — 50 years ago — by a statistician celebrated by Planned Parenthood. There’s no reason to use them today.”
Planned Parenthood does have a reason to use them, however. Planned Parenthood wants to demonize pro-life activism, particularly any efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade. The abortion giant is willing to spread blatant lies in the service of demonizing dissent on this issue.
Planned Parenthood wants Americans to think that overturning Roe will bring back the dark ages: women will resort to back-alley abortions and thousands of them will die every year. The truth is far less politically powerful: states will finally be free to make their own laws on abortion.
As Kessler noted, “if Roe is overturned, a significant number of states, such as California and New York, are expected to still permit abortions, so the situation would be more akin to the period immediately before Roe.”
There is even less reason to support the scaremongering figure of 5,000 annual deaths — an overestimate from the beginning, and based on the world of 1933 — than many pro-life activists would have guessed. Planned Parenthood and Leana Wen should be ashamed of themselves.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.