Illegal abortions

The "coat hanger" argument is one of the most emotionally compelling appeals of abortion activists. It is also misleading and would seem to have little substance.

  • Some women have chosen dangerous methods to rid themselves of their child in the past and some died as a result.
  • People often choose a course of action that has disastrous consequences.
  • Many of the women aborting today would never have chosen an illegal abortion.
  • Most 'legal' abortion related deaths are misreported and misrecorded
  • Women are six times more likely to commit suicide after having an abortion.
The wire coat hanger became a symbol of unsafe backstreet abortions (whether or not it was actually used much), and a visual symbol to depict abortion advocates views on abortion for the past few decades.

This symbol of the abortion rights movement, seen on placards and buttons, is supposed to represent 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").

Abortion advocates claim that if abortion is made illegal, or restricted, women will once again resort to dangerous methods.

Dr Frank Beckwith, PhD, wrote in an article 'More on Illegal Abortion Myths':
"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." 1

"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."

The idea that illegal abortions were performed by "back-alley butchers" with rusty coat hangers is misleading. 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."9  

Dr Beckworth says, "It seems that the vast majority of the alleged 'back-alley butchers' eventually became the 'reproductive health providers' of our present day." 

Lies and exaggerations
Like Dr Nathanson, many other pro-abortionists freely admitted that the abortion rights movement simply lied about the number of women who died of complications due to illegal abortions:

Pro-abortion writer Marian Faux confirms the thought processes behind what she labels "propaganda" in her recent book Roe v. Wade, "An image of tens of thousands of women being maimed or killed each year by illegal abortion was so persuasive a piece of propaganda that the [abortion rights] movement could be forgiven its failure to double-check the facts."10

Jeanne Head, R.N., the chief pro-life lobbyist at the United Nations, and herself a former labor and delivery nurse says that statistics from the United Nations World Health Organization demonstrate that maternal mortality decreases with the overall improvement of national health care and the general health status of women rather than with legalization of abortion.

Moreover, UN figures demonstrate that the legalization of abortion can lead to an increase in maternal mortality. Read more here.

Conflicting descriptions of abortionists
Abortion advocates used gruesome depictions of tragic circumstances to win compassion and support, to generate sympathy for the plight of desperate women and hatred for those opposed to abortion. Goebbels perfected this technique in turning the German people against the Jews prior to World War II.

In "Why Abortion Must Remain the Law of the Land" published in The Humanist, abortion advocate Sherry Matulis writes:
"I'd like to see how they'd ["holier-than-thou" pro-lifers] fare if they were put in the position of being young and raped and pregnant and scared witless -- if they thought that they could very well die and leave two little children motherless. I'd like to see if their smug pseudomorality would hold up if they had to experience firsthand what a real "abortion mill" was all about:

The incredible, indescribable filth and stench. The cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. The blood-spattered floor. The two-aspirin "anesthetic." The slop bucket at the end of the old enameled kitchen table. The drunken old butcher coming at them, a whiskey glass in one hand and a sharp instrument in the other, saying to them "You can take your pants down now, but you shoulda -- ha, ha -- left 'em on before."

"But ever since 1973, whenever a legal abortion results in a maternal death the underlying cause is often, and perhaps usually, ignored or disguised on death certificates. In one case, a single researcher examining public records was able to document 50 percent more deaths related to legal abortion than had been reported in the "official" government reports, and says that he probably uncovered only a small fraction of these misclassified abortion related deaths. (Read more about mis-coding of abortion-related deaths here.)

"Surveys of women seeking legal abortions confirm that only 6 to 20 percent would have considered seeking an illegal abortion if it was not legally available. This finding also confirms that legalization of abortion has replaced every illegal abortion that we sought to avoid with between ten and fifteen legal abortions."

"Any marginal improvements in the safety of legal abortions, as compared to illegal abortions, are more than offset by the astronomical increase in the number of women exposed to the inherent risks of induced abortion, legal or illegal. While the percentage of women dying from abortion is lower, the actual number of women dying has increased. The actual number of women suffering physical complications has increased. The actual number of women suffering psychological complications has increased. The suffering of women, men, and families has not been reduced by legalization; it has been increased. 

"There are also many deaths which are indirectly caused by abortion. Women with a history of abortion are six times more likely to commit suicide. They are also more prone to substance abuse and other forms of risky behavior that may lead to death. They also have increased rates of breast and cervical cancer. In addition, approximately 100,000 women each year will lose a planned baby to spontaneous miscarriage as a direct result of reproductive damage caused by their prior induced abortions."
Dr Reardon makes the point that "before 1973, women could better resist the pressure from others to abort an unplanned pregnancy on the grounds that abortion was illegal, unsafe, and immoral. After legalization, it is easier for families and boyfriends to insist that because abortion is legal it must be "safe," and because it is "socially approved," it must be moral. Legalization makes it easier to pressure women into unwanted abortions."16

  1. 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.
  2. Bernard Nathanson, M.D., Aborting America (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 193.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. From the U.S. Bureau of Vital Statistics Center for Disease Control, as cited in Wilke, 101-2.
  6. See Davis, 75.
  7. See note 10; Callahan, 132-36; Krason, 301-10.
  8. 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.
  9. Mary Calderone, "Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem," in American Journal of Health 50 (July 1960):949.
  10. The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision That Made Abortion Legal [Philadelphia: MacMillan, 1990].
  11. Malcolm Potts, Peter Diggory and John Peel. Abortion [Cambridge University Press, 1970]
  12. "Unfinished Business: Birth Control and Women's Liberation." Sisterhood is Powerful (Robin Morgan, editor). New York: Vintage Books, 1970. Page 260
  13. Bernard N. Nathanson, M.D., FACOG. "A Pro-Life Medical Response to ACOG's January 1990 Publication: `Public Health Policy Implications of Abortion'" presented by William F. Colliton, M.D.,, American Life League, 1990.
  14. Sherry Matulis. "Why Abortion Must Remain the Law of the Land." The Humanist, July/August 1992, pages 35 to 37 and 49. Adapted from her 1991 "Humanist Heroine Award" acceptance speech. Emphasis in the original.
  15. "Dr. Edith," quoted in Patricia G. Miller. The Worst of Times [New York: HarperCollins, 1993], page 32.
  16. The Post-Abortion Review, Issue 7(4), Winter 1999. Copyright 1999 Elliot Institute.