San Francisco Chronicle article no longer available online, but excerpted here (we have added the links to the referred blog posts):
Potential abortion deaths in dispute as Senate girds for high court battle
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
(07-19) 12:58 PDT WASHINGTON, (AP) --
As abortion rights supporters and opponents prepare for a fight over President Bush's Supreme Court nominee, the question of how many women would die if abortion were illegal has become a point of contention.
Supporters of abortion rights cite the estimate that some 5,000 women a year died from illegal and unsafe abortions before the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Opponents call the figure grossly exaggerated, noting that after the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, the official count of abortion-related deaths plummeted — to 193 by 1965.
Abortion rights supporters argue that those figures badly underestimate how many deaths actually occurred; they say very few doctors and parents wanted to admit that their patients or daughters died from illegal procedures.
"You have to know that it is estimated that there were up to 1.2 million illegal abortions every year, so this 5,000 is four-tenths of 1 percent. I think it's actually an understated number," Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., told The Associated Press. "I personally believe it's higher than that, given the fact that these were back-alley, and a lot of them done in unsanitary situations."
Boxer came under fire on anti-abortion Web sites this month after using the 5,000 number at an appearance in San Francisco, during which she said a filibuster was an option if President Bush taps an anti-abortion nominee to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court.
The Web site ProLifeBlogs.com mentioned Boxer in an article called "Abortion Supporters use Urban Legends in Supreme Court Debate," and the blog After Abortion posted her Senate office address and suggested readers write to her on the issue.
"She conveniently leaves out that the fact that for abortion to be totally criminalized again, not only does Roe v. Wade have to be overturned, but also Doe v. Bolton and about 10 or so other Supreme Court decisions, plus each of 50 states has to pass laws also abolishing legal abortion," wrote Annie Banno, a contributor to the blog. "So just the overturning of Roe doesn't shatter the earth like she portends it will."
Banno notes that the 5,000 figure has been pegged as too high by a number of experts, including a former head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who came to oppose abortion and wrote in a 1979 book called "Aborting America" that it was "totally false" to claim 5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year from the procedure.
Boxer aides counter that the 5,000 figure was cited in the 1968 book "Septic Abortion" by Dr. Richard H. Schwarz, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Many abortion-rights advocates also cite a 1982 article written by three scholars in Family Planning Perspectives, a publication of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which favors abortion rights. The scholars' conclusion: "As many as 5,000 to 10,000 women died per year from illegal abortions" during some stages in the pre-Roe era.
NARAL Pro-Choice America spokesman Ted Miller told the AP that "the 5,000 number is one we've always been comfortable with." The number also was cited in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June by Karen O'Connor, professor of government and director of the Women and Politics Institute at American University.
Still, quantifying deaths from illegal abortions is an inexact science, regardless of who's doing the quantifying. In the pre-Roe era, it's widely assumed that many such deaths occurred without being officially attributed to abortions, and no one can say with statistical precision what a repeal of Roe would mean in terms of illegal abortions.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, the best estimates of abortion-related deaths suggest that the number of women who died from abortion-related causes was significantly higher before the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, which permitted more effective treatment of the infections that frequently developed after illegal abortion.
In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women; in 1940, that number had declined to just under 1,700; in 1950, the number fell dramatically to 316.
By 1965, the official count of abortion-related deaths had fallen to 193 but, because abortion was illegal during those years, it is probable that the number of deaths due to abortion was much greater than officially reported, the Guttmacher Institute said.
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