41.6 million abortions annually, yet report frets about access

The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion think tank, has released a study which says surgical abortions decreased in 2003 from 1995 levels, but decried that abortion was not universally legal and that many women have “unsafe” abortions due to the fact the procedure is illegal or restricted in much of the developing world.

In “Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress,” Guttmacher researchers used national statistics and pro-abortion non-governmental organizations to provide a global picture of abortion. The report said the number of abortions committed in 2003 was 41.6 million, down from 45.5 million in 1995, the last time the institute conducted such a study.

Stephen Phelan, communications manager for Human Life International, observed that globally, there is more than one abortion per second. He also said that taking an average of 40 million abortions each year, there have been more than 1.1 billion unborn children killed by abortion since 1980, when abortion became widely available around the world. Phelan said there is nothing comparable to such killing. “There simply isn’t anything close … There’s definitely nothing to compare.”

Historians generally accept the estimate of 60 million casualties in World War II and Stéphane Courtois, editor of the Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, estimates that communist regimes killed about 100 million of their own people in the 20th century.

Susan Cohen, director of government affairs for the Guttmacher Institute, called the report a good news/bad news story. She pointed to the decreasing number of abortions that the report’s researchers attribute to a nine percentage-point increase in the use of contraceptives among married women (to 63 per cent). The report noted that contraceptive use has increased in every region in the world. But she complained that abortion access is not universal.

The report stated that since 1995, 19 countries have liberalized their abortion laws, while three (El Salvador, Nicaragua and Poland) have “substantially increased restrictions.” Despite the increased liberalization of abortion in many parts of the world, the researchers said that four in 10 women live in countries with “highly restrictive abortion laws.” The institute said African and Latin American countries have the most restrictive abortion regimes.

The headline-grabbing number in the report was that 70,000 women die from “unsafe” abortions each year. Guttmacher Institute president Sharon Camp said the large number of women’s deaths from abortion indicates a need to lift abortion restrictions. “Legal restrictions do not make abortions not happen,” she told the Associated Press. “They just make the procedure dangerous.”

Dr. Jack Willke says Guttmacher numbers must be taken with a gain of salt.

Dr. Jack Willke says Guttmacher numbers must be taken with a grain of salt.

Dr. Jack Willke, president of the International Right to Life Federation, told The Interim the institute is making a “presumptuous and unproven” argument in equating illegal abortion with unsafe abortion and, by extension, legal abortion with safe abortion.

He said many abortions committed in the developing world, especially in Africa, are done by unlicensed doctors or medical staff in unhygienic conditions. “Many abortions are done with dangerous manual vacuum aspirators, not in a sterile environment, often on the dirt floor and without anaesthetic.” He added that women are “lucky not to get an infection introduced during the procedure.” Contra the claims of the Guttmacher Institute, “making them legal wouldn’t make them safer,” said Willke.

In August, the UN-based Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute found a relationship between abortion access and maternal health – countries that have liberal laws have higher maternal mortality rates, while countries that restrict abortion and protect the unborn have lower maternal mortality rates.

Using World Health Organization statistics, Aracely Ornelas pointed out that Mauritius, the African country with the laws “most protective of the unborn,” has the continent’s lowest maternal death rate. Meanwhile, Ethiopia, which decriminalized abortion under international pressure earlier this decade, has failed to reduce its maternal mortality rate – it is 48 times higher than that of Mauritius. Likewise, South Africa, which has one of the most permissive abortion laws in Africa, saw the number of maternal deaths increase 20 per cent from 2005 to 2007.

The pattern is repeated in almost every region of the world. According to the WHO, Chile, which protects unborn life in its constitution, has the lowest maternal mortality rate in South America. The country with the highest rate is Guyana, with a maternal mortality rate 30 times higher than that in Chile. Guyana has allowed abortion with almost no restrictions since in 1995. Nepal has the highest maternal mortality in South East Asia, yet it has no restrictions, while Sri Lanka’s rate is 14 times lower, despite having one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the continent.

Notably, the country with the lowest maternal death rate in the world is Ireland, a nation that prohibits abortion and whose constitution explicitly protects the rights of the unborn.

Still, the Guttmacher Institute is calling upon all countries to fund “family planning” programs, including the provision of a wide variety of contraceptives, and to liberalize abortion laws, guarantee access and ensure the procedure is affordable for poor women. It says the failure to do this is an “urgent health, economic and moral imperative.”

That, says Willke, betrays what the institute’s research is all about. “Anything the Guttmacher Institute does is highly suspect and is flat-out propaganda, unless proven otherwise.” Noting the institute started off as the research arm of Planned Parenthood, Willke says its research is agenda-driven. He said there is often little basis for its numbers, other than guesswork that serves its pro-abortion ends.

While not denying that women die from unsafe abortions, Willke said the institute has an interest in exaggerating the number of maternal deaths from illegal abortions, because pro-abortion groups routinely use such numbers to pressure governments to liberalize abortion laws.