As senior Government figures state their view that there are too many abortions, especially late abortions, and pro-choice voices raise the spectre of backyard deaths if abortions are restricted by law, it is time to correct the historical and clinical misconceptions surrounding the “myth” of the backyard butcher.
There is no denying the power of the “No coat-hangers” cry raised by abortion pressure groups in response to recent public statements by politicians, but it is the power of emotional blackmail. It says to citizens, if you put any limits at all on abortion, women will die again in the backyard, and you will be responsible.
If that vision (of women dying as a result of making certain abortions illegal) is valid, then of course no democracy will enforce the law. Even those people who are dismayed at the prospect of unlimited abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, by any brutal method, are more dismayed at the thought of women dying again in droves at the hands of backyard butchers. Debate is paralysed.
If, however, that vision is an illusion, if the whole backyard butcher scare campaign can be discredited by a few historical facts and we understand that women will not die as a result of laws limiting abortion, then the debate can move on.
Fact one: making abortion legal or illegal has never, historically, made the slightest detectable difference to the safety of women. This is because of fact two: that medicine alone, not the law, has achieved all the magnificent gains in maternal safety.
These dramatic gains were made by medical breakthroughs such as antibiotics in the 1940s, blood transfusion, improved surgical techniques and emergency services—and the medical gains were achieved before there was a single liberal law or “safe legal clinic”. If these legal changes made any additional contribution to safety, it is too small to show up in the historical record.
Study the entire Australian Bureau of Statistics data on Causes of Death 1906-1996. Observe the death rate for illegal abortion plummet from about 100 deaths every year in the 1930s (before antibiotics) to just one death in the whole of Australia in 1969 (the last year of the old “backyard” regime)—before there was a single “legal” clinic anywhere in the country. All this was thanks to medical advances alone, with the legal status of abortion unchanged and irrelevant. Observe also that maternal deaths from all causes—childbirth, miscarriage, abortion—dropped exactly in parallel, for the exact same medical reasons. Note that in the “legal” seventies, further small gains in average abortion mortality exactly matched further gains in childbirth mortality—but nobody suggests childbirth had been recently legalized! It was medical progress, not legal agitation, which made abortion (whether criminal or medical), and childbirth, irreversibly safer.
Facts one and two dispel the cherished illusion that “illegal” means “unsafe”—and that “therefore it must be legal”—the trump card of the abortion lobby. This is beginning to be acknowledged even by abortion supporters. Writing in the US journal “Women’s Quarterly”, Candice Crandall reluctantly accepts that medical advances, not legal changes, were responsible for improved safety: “In fact, it wasn’t Roe v Wade (the Supreme Court ruling in 1973 to legalise abortion) that made abortion safe: it was the availability of antibiotics beginning in the 1940s.”
She also confirms that “the most powerful of the pro-choice arguments was the claim that any infringement of the right to an abortion would return America to the dark ages when thousands of women died because of unsafe, back-alley abortion”.
Thousands of women? In fact, she notes, the US death toll had dropped to 41 in the year before Roe v Wade, not the ten thousand figure promoted by the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL). Co-founder of NARAL, Dr Bernard Nathanson, writes: “I confess that I knew the figures were totally false—but the overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible.”Whatever it takes.
Yes, genuine limits on abortion would again drive some selfish abortions “underground”, but certain things do indeed belong underground—the moral sewerage of society, like paedophilia, drug dealing, and the killing of our young—rather than flowing down our streets for the kids to play in.
And we should not overdramatise the dangers of going underground: historically the so-called “backyard” usually was, and would be again, merely the “backroom” of a qualified doctor’s surgery. Past Director of Planned Parenthood, Dr Mary Calderone, admitted in the American Journal of Public Health that even in the illegal sixties in America, with its ghettoes of black and Hispanic poverty, 90% of all “backyard” abortions were in fact carried out by trained physicians. In welfare-state Australia any covert abortions could simply be reclassified as “curettes” and done on Medicare in the “backroom” of a colluding doctor’s surgery. Alternatively, done by experienced amateurs using the cheap sterile suction pump seen on the My Foetus film. In these covert but clean circumstances, and with routine backup at Casualty, the immediate physical risk of illegal abortion would be very ordinary.
I say “immediate physical” risk, because there are other profound injuries, moral and emotional, sustained in creating a place of death in one’s own body, which are far from ordinary, and delayed risks such as breast cancer which are not yet well defined. But here the discussion is of death by coat hangers, not the deathly effects of abortion upon the inner life of the mother.
Enforcing genuine limits on abortion does not place women at any significant physical risk, because medicine has minimized that risk; it might drive a few women to a safe and secret backroom, but not to the propagandist’s backyard, nor to his anachronistic “coat hanger”.
The current alternative is to have no limits, to permit the wholesale slaughter of unwanted unborn children—“children”, as Bob Ellis put it, “who would have loved you”— and the wholesale scarring of young mothers’ (and fathers’) hearts, which might lose the capacity to love at all.