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Won't women die in backstreet abortions? // Tough Q&A #5

Talk Transcript | Brephos Conference 2019: For such a time as this

Rape, incest and backstreet abortion: Handling the hard questions | Nov 2019

Backstreet Abortion

[Excerpt from 31:55]

Firstly, when it comes to backstreet abortions, the question of the morality of abortion is still central. Some people try and use backstreet abortion as a way of saying it doesn't matter what you think about the morality of abortion. I actually might think abortion is wrong, I am pro-life and I oppose abortion, but I think that all banning it will do is lead to dangerous backstreet abortions, which don't stop abortions, but which lead to women dying. So they try to say that actually the morality of abortion is irrelevant. Well, actually my first point is that the morality of abortion, the ethics of it, is absolutely central. Firstly, because the law plays a powerful expressive role. It expresses what we believe about humans and about human dignity, even if no-one obeys it. A good example is the transatlantic slave trade. Many people initially who were opposed to the abolition of the slave trade said that it didn’t matter whether slavery or the slave trade was wrong. It will still happen, so we need to make sure it happens in the safest way possible. That's completely wrong. We know that whether people do it illegally or not, we need to say in the law that the people who are being trafficked in the slave trade are equal human beings worthy of dignity and respect, and that goes, no matter what the consequences of that law will be. Wilberforce says essentially the same thing. He's responding to the backstreet slave trade argument. And what people said at that time was that abolishing the slave trade led to revolutions in the Caribbean that killed many people. In one case they say the slave trade went on illegally, so 60,000 slaves were being shipped across the Atlantic each year, many of them illegally shipped, even once abolition had been put into law. Illegal traders often used ships which had not being designed for holding slaves at all, cramming them into the hulls of converted warships, and other vessels, which gave the victims even less space than in the days when the British trade was legal and regulated. We can see the parallel very clearly here. In both cases, yes, there will be some illegal activity that goes on, even if it is made illegal, and perhaps you could make the argument that a legal, regulated system is ultimately better, but I think in hindsight we know that that perspective does not work. Actually, banning the slave trade did lead to its abolition eventually, at least in that form at the time, and lead to much better prospects for everyone involved. The other reason the morality is central and why you can't use this backstreet abortion argument is that we know that pro-life laws do work, but we know that when we put in pro-life laws, whether banning abortion or putting limits on it, or putting financial restrictions on it, or putting informed consent laws in, all of these reduce the numbers of abortions. And just as an example of that, the British Medical Journal just a few years ago estimated that just before the 1967 Act there were 10,000 abortions in the UK every year. And, of course, with much more widespread contraception and legal abortion, that figure has multiplied by 20 over the last 50 years.

What about the question of mortality from illegal abortions? What about women who will die as a result of illegal abortions? Well essentially one of the short answers to this is that most of these figures were completely invented by admission of pro-choicers. There were very few deaths from illegal abortions in the developed world, even 50 years ago and now there will be almost none or probably even none. Bernard Nathanson was one of the foremost pro-choice doctors in the movement in America in the 1970s and he says, “How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In our organisation we usually emphasised the drama of the individual case, but we spoke about 5,000-10,000 a year. I confess that I knew the figures were totally false. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?” Likewise, Mary Calderone, who was the medical director of Planned Parenthood, which is the main abortion provider in the US, said, “When abortion was still illegal in the US abortion illegally is no longer a dangerous procedure. It is carried out in sanitary conditions, and there are not many deaths from it at all. Abortion, at the end, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous because it's been done well by physicians.” Just to give some statistics on that - in 1973 when abortion was legalised in the UK there were only 19 deaths recorded from illegal abortion and 50 years later we would expect there to be far fewer and I would hope none at all. By contrast, if we look at mortality from legal abortions, I think we can expect significantly more. Even now with legal abortion, some women die directly from legal abortions from complications such as bleeding. But actually, abortion seems according to the studies to contribute to one of the biggest killers of women of childbearing age, which is suicide. I already gave some evidence on this and I'm not going to go through it in detail, but studies suggests that potentially between 1% and 5% of all suicides among women can be attributed to abortion. And actually if you look at the statistics, and work out how many women would be affected therefore, you could make the argument that at least 15 women die from suicide as a result of abortion in the UK every year. And that along probably exceeds the likely mortality rate from illegal abortion if abortion were to be made illegal. So finally, in responding to this, we have to think about the human cost. No option is without cost in human lives. Someone who asks the question about backstreet abortions is trying to come up with a eutopia where they say, “Look, these women are dying if abortions are made illegal. How can you allow that to happen?” Now of course these are tragic cases and we don't want that to happen. But the point is that neither option is completely without cost in human lives. So yes, it is true that some women may die in illegal abortions in the UK, if it were to be made illegal. I think the number would be very few, probably less than five. That is obviously a tragedy, but we have to weigh that against the other tragedy of legal abortion, and the human cost of legal abortion is exponentially higher. Plausibly you would have even more women dying because of the suicide rates associated with abortion, you would have a culture and a law that says at its root, not all humans are equal. And of course, the ultimate thing which all of this comes down to, whichever hard case you're talking about, the human cost from allowing abortion, even if you consider the hard cases, is at least 200,000 dead unborn children in the UK every year. That is something that I don’t think can be outweighed very easily if at all, and that is something that's the pro-choicer has to reckon with when they're thinking about these cases.


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