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The Truth About “Back Alley” Abortions

With the arrest of Dr. Kermit Gossnell and his associates for running an abortion “house of horrors” in Philadelphia in January 2011, and legislative proposals to strip Planned Parenthood of government funding at the state and federal levels, abortion advocates are falling back on the claim that any effort to regulate the abortion industry will lead to the closing of abortion businesses and a rise in dangerous “back alley” abortions.

But these claims are based on myths.

The truth is that legal abortion has increased, rather than prevented, the pain, suffering and exploitation of women.1

5 Myths About “Back Alley” Abortions

Myth #1. Illegal abortions were performed by unlicensed, unskilled hacks.

Prior to legalization, 90 percent of illegal abortions were done by physicians.2  Most of the remainder were done by nurses, midwives or others with at least some medical training.

The term “back alley” referred not to where abortions were performed, but to how women were instructed to enter the doctor’s office after hours, through the back alley, to avoid arousing neighbors’ suspicions.

Myth #2. Tens of thousands of women died from illegal abortions every year.

This pseudo-fact was much repeated by the media. The late Dr. Bernard Nathanson, one of the co-founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League [NARAL] and the obstetrician/ gynecologist who directed what was in the 1970s the world’s largest abortion business, later revealed that leading abortion proponents knew this figure was false but considered it to be “useful” in their public relations campaign.3

Even Planned Parenthood’s own leading statisticians admitted that the official statistics on deaths resulting from illegal abortion were very accurately reported prior to 1973.

In 1972, there were 39 maternal deaths related to illegal abortion, not the thousands proclaimed by pro-abortionists.

In fact, deaths from illegal abortions were already declining or leveling off prior to 1973. After legalization, this trend remained unchanged. Deaths eliminated from the illegal abortion column were replaced by deaths resulting from legal abortion.

The number of women dying from legal abortions is probably several times what it was when abortion was illegal. For many compelling reasons, deaths resulting from illegal abortion were accurately reported on death certificates. Independent studies have confirmed this.

However, 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.

This occurs for many reasons: to spare the surviving family members embarrassment, to limit liability exposure, to avoid tarnishing public perceptions of abortion, and simply because the death is no longer related to a criminal activity.5

Independent studies have confirmed the fact that the official statistics on maternal mortality following legal abortions are woefully inaccurate.

Most recently, 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.6

The researcher, Kevin Sherlock, insisted that even his efforts have uncovered only a small fraction of these misclassified abortion related deaths.

Further, researchers in Finland who linked women’s death certificates to their medical records found that 94 percent of maternal deaths associated with abortion are not identifiable as such when looking at the the death certificates alone.

Myth #3. There were a million illegal abortions performed each year.

This was another made-up number intended to shock the public with the “overwhelming” dimensions of this unstoppable problem. Scientific estimates based on known deaths and complications related to illegal abortion show that the actual rate of illegal abortions was in the range of 60,000 to 200,000 per year.

Surveys of women who sought illegal abortions at that time confirm this much lower estimate for the overall rate of illegal abortion. These surveys also showed that less than half of women who sought an illegal abortion actually persisted in obtaining one.

In addition, among those women who did procure an illegal abortion, the reported rate of physical complications was almost identical to the complication rate related to legal abortions. This last fact is not surprising since most illegal abortions were already performed by physicians.7

[ED. There are now at least 1.2 million legal abortions performed in the USA every year. Does that make the devastation any better?]

Myth #4. If abortion becomes illegal, women will seek out illegal abortions.

Surveys of women undergoing 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.8

[ED. Laws are educative. If something is legal, the general public assumes it is morally acceptable.]

Further, research and anecdotal evidence finds that most women having abortions are pressured or coerced to do so by someone else — and that most abortions are likely unwanted.

Before 1973, women could refuse an unwanted abortion on the grounds that it was illegal, unsafe and immoral.

Legalization has made it easier for those around her to insist that because abortion is legal it must be “safe,” and because it is “socially approved,” it must be moral. It makes it easier for them to refuse to support her desire to continue the pregnancy and insist that she abort anyway.

For example, when act

ress Hunter Tylo was fired from the TV show Melrose Place after she became pregnant, her pregnancy discrimination suit quoted a producer as saying, “Why doesn’t she just go out and have an abortion? Then she can work.” 9

Myth #5. Legal abortions are safer than illegal 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 3.5 times more likely to die following abortion and six times more likely to commit suicide than are women who give birth. They are also more prone to substance abuse and other forms of risky behavior that may lead to death.

Indeed, more than 30 studies published in the last five years alone have linked abortion to higher rates of mental health problems, including depression, substance abuse, suicidal behavior, and anxiety disorders — including symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

More abortions, not safer abortions

As these basic facts illustrate, the claim that legalized abortion will save women from “unsafe abortions” is without merit.

The basic flaw in this argument is the false assumption that a change in legal status can make safe a medical act that is inherently unsafe.

It is also absurd to believe that legalizing abortion will not increase the abortion rate or expose a whole new group of women to the danger of being pressured into unwanted abortions.

Society has overlooked the fact that not a single study has ever been published which shows that abortion, for any given reason, actually benefits the physical, emotional, economic, or social health of women.

Indeed, the available evidence shows that abortion is instead associated with a worsening of the physical, emotional, economic, and social well-being of women.

Legalized abortion has contributed to the feminization of poverty and increased dependency on welfare.10

Easy access to abortion has made it easier, not harder, for men to abandon their wives and girlfriends.

In addition, women with a history of abortion are more likely to experience breast cancer, substance abuse, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction, suicidal impulses, psychiatric hospitalization, and other problems.

The only ones receiving any tangible benefit from legalized abortion are not women, but rather, the elitist population controllers.

Through the legalization of abortion, they have succeeded in reducing the birth rates among the “lower classes” and racial minorities, which was exactly their goal. But the cost to women has been tremendous.

The exploitation of women is made worse by the fact that abortion business counselors routinely withhold information about risks and alternatives from their patients.

Deceptive business practices, negligence, and even sexual abuse of patients are well documented throughout the abortion industry.11

Kevin Sherlock, author of Victims of Choice, has accurately described the present situation with this memorable comment: “While abortion is legal, it is still practiced with the ethics of the back alley.”

The truth is that legal abortion still hurts, traumatizes and even kills women and girls.

In a letter posted at, Eileen Roberts, president of Mothers and Advocates for Mothers Alone, and the mother of a teen girl injured by abortion, wrote:

    How can we be so naive to think that every surgical procedure of abortion is safe and use the argument that women would resort to back-alley abortions? Legalizing abortion simply gave the back-alley physician permission to put his shingle on the front door.

    … Abortion may be currently legal, but it is anything but safe for either mother or child. In every abortion someone dies.

    My 14-year-old was told she was going to the best abortion facility in Virginia. Her boyfriend and a so-called adult friend, who transported her 45 miles from our home, did not know her as her parents did.

    She suffered emotional and physical consequences from a so-called safe, legal abortion.

    To add insult to injury, my husband and I were responsible for more than $27,000 in medical costs to repair the damage done by the abortionist.

    In my opinion, this was an example of a legal back-alley abortion.



1. Much of this information is taken from David C. Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More (Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 2002) 281-310. Reference the book for any sources not cited in this article.

2. Germain Grisez, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1972) 49.

3. Bernard Nathanson, M.D., with Richard Ostling, Aborting America (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1979) 193.

4. See Grisez, Abortion: Myths, Realities, and Arguments, 70-71 and Nathanson, Aborting America, 193.

5. For further discussion and details, see Aborted Women, Silent No More, 282-286.

6. Kevin Sherlock, Victims of Choice (Akron, OH: Brennyman Books, 1996). See also Mark Crutcher, Lime 5 (Denton, TX: Life Dynamics, 1996) and David C. Reardon, “The Cover-Up: Why U.S. Abortion Statistics Are Meaningless,” The Post-Abortion Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, April-June 2000.

7. See see Aborted Women, Silent No More, 287-289.

8. see Aborted Women, Silent No More, 289-291.

9. Amanda Covarrubias, “7.7m for actor fired over pregnancy,” The Age, Dec. 24, 1997, p. A7. For more examples, see the special report, Forced Abortion in America.

10. David C. Reardon, “Abortion and the Feminization of Poverty” The Post-Abortion Review 1(3), Fall 1993.

11. See ht

tp:// See also, Melinda Tankard Reist, Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion (Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 2007); Reardon, Aborted Women, Silent No More; Crutcher, Lime 5; and Sherlock, Victims of Choice; for hundreds of well documented examples.
[ posted 9 March 2011, Elliot Institute]