Bad Abortion Arguments: “Laws Don’t Work”

When pro-aborts aren’t in the mood to defend abortion with indignant sloganeering or bizarre moral theorizing, they’ll instead try to put a more detached, practical face on their position by arguing that, regardless how anyone feels about it, banning abortion simply wouldn’t work anyway. Today, Scott Lemieux at the Lawyers, Gun$ and Money blog claims, “even on its own terms criminalizing abortion does very little to protect fetal life, but is very successful in maiming and killing women.”

His source is a New York Times report on the futility of Morocco’s abortion laws, which only permit “the early termination of pregnancy, with spousal consent, to save the life of the woman or to preserve her physical or mental health”:

A 2008 study, the most recent available, put the number of abortions in Morocco as high as 600 a day.

Last week a leading gynecologist, Chafik Chraibi, put the figure even higher. Dr. Chraibi, a professor of gynecology at Mohammed V University in Rabat, who is an ardent campaigner for legalizing abortion, said the real figure “is probably closer to 900 a day, when you take into account the nonmedical abortions carried out at home.”

“In Morocco, according to the World Health Organization, 13 percent of maternity deaths are from abortions,” he said.

Women coming to him after botched terminations — often carried out in makeshift operating rooms in filthy basements — were frequently “mutilated,” with many suffering from hemorrhaging uteri or perforated abdomens, Dr. Chraibi said.

Let’s tackle the second claim first. While every maternal death by illegal abortion is tragic, the responsibility for such deaths falls squarely on the individuals who make the choice to perform and undergo such dangerous procedures, not those who forbid them. And we shouldn’t be so quick to concede the causal link Lemieux and Chraibi suggest, either—not only does the NYT story neglect to explore what the abortion rates would be without the law, or elaborate on any number of variables about Moroccan society or law enforcement that might account for the law’s ineffectiveness, but we know from our own history that the pre-Roe v. Wade back-alley abortion epidemic didn’t happen:

The claims by abortion advocates that 1,000,000 or more illegal abortions occurred annually and 5,000-10,000 women died are based on inaccurately calculated extrapolations from flawed and erroneous data of the 1920s and the 1930s – the pre-penicillin era.

The number of deaths of childbearing-age women for non-abortion related causes remained relatively constant in the years before Roe v. Wade, showing that deaths from illegal abortion could not have been “hidden” under other causes of death.

Advances in medical technology, not the legalization of abortion, caused a significant drop in the number of maternal deaths from abortion:

  • maternal deaths from illegal abortions were above 1,000 per year only in the pre-penicillin era (1940). The maternal abortion deaths dropped sharply with the advent of antibiotics (penicillin and sulfa) and other medical advances to treat infections.
  • the maternal death rate had declined to 30 maternal deaths from illegal abortions by 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade was decided.

Nor does the idea that banning abortion wouldn’t put a dent in America’s abortion rates hold water. As with back-alley abortions, neither Morocco’s situation nor our own pre-Roe experience supports the claim. In the 2000 edition of Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Arguments, Randy Alcorn notes:

There were abortions in this country before abortion was legal, but the number skyrocketed once it was legalized. There are now fifteen times more abortions annually in this country than there were in the years prior to Roe v. Wade […] In one survey of women who had abortions 72 percent said they would definitely not have sought an abortion if doing so were illegal.

Pro-lifers aren’t utopians; we understand that we’ll never be fully rid of abortion, just as we’ll never be fully rid of murder, theft, rape, or drunk driving. None of us seek or expect a legal regime which will somehow keep the abortion rate at zero for the rest of time; we simply desire laws that express society’s respect for human life and deter as many abortions as practically possible. Abortion has been successfully banned before, and there’s no reason to believe it can’t be done again.