A Primer on "Abortion Distortion"
By Dave Andrusko
"A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."
"We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves."
It may not be particularly generous on my part, but on those rare occasions when pro-abortionists seem to be conceding, in a backhanded sort of way, a tiny error, I instinctively reach for my billfold. Ordinarily, persuading the Abortion Lobby to 'fess up is like pulling teeth. In fact, they'd much rather give up all 32 than admit to spinning out yarns and yarns of lies and propagandistic sound bites.
As we learned once again in the ferocious debate over partial-birth abortion, accuracy is the sine qua non of prevailing against forces which have the "mainstream" media in their corner. The truth acts like sandbags against a rising river of distortion, dishonesty, and disingenuousness.
Which brings us to one legend syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman appeared to start to recant in her May 13 Boston Globe column. Although she never uses the word "mistake" or even "revision," she tells us that a previous column she'd written on the "March for Women's Lives" contained a statement that needs ...clarification? As someone who describes herself as both "pro-choice and pro-facts," can we expect a mea culpa from one of the most partisan, take-no-prisoners pro-abortion scribes? Let's see.
From the get-go, Goodman assumes the posture of truth-teller. Alluding to the "blue state, red state" political divide, Goodman tells us that there aren't blue and red facts, only facts. Were a modern day Diogenes on the lookout for an honest man, Goodman's tone tells us, he'd need go no further than the offices of the Globe.
In that earlier column, she writes, "I referred to the bad old days when 10,000 women a year died of illegal abortions. Kaboom. The number - - 10,000 deaths - - produced a mother lode of e-mails insisting that it was either a lie or propaganda or an 'urban legend.'"
Why such a tidal wave of reaction? Had we been able to penetrate the inner-sanctum of the abortion movement in the 1960s, on the table we'd likely have found blueprints whose specifications for toppling protective state abortion laws rested on two lies: 10,000 annual abortion-related deaths and a "million" illegal abortions each year (something Goodman studiously chose to ignore). They functioned like wrecking balls that demolished state statutes which in some cases had stood for more than a century.
What makes the unwary reader initially drop his or her guard is that Goodman freely admits, "By 1972, the year before the Roe v. Wade decision, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 39 women died from illegal or self-induced abortions." So, why am I looking a gift horse - - the admission that in the year before Roe, the number was not 5,000 or 10,000, but 39 - - in the mouth?
There are five reasons, beyond a stubborn resistance to allowing proteges of earlier lies and misrepresentations to survive a supposed correction.
First, Goodman's point in re-addressing her statement is not that there had never been a time when 10,000 women died from illegal abortions. That supposedly occurred in the "bad, bad old days" back roughly 70 years.
Second, the same kind of wild extrapolations from unreliable, unrepresentative data that gave us the twin myths lives on today. The difference is it takes the form of jacking up the alleged number of deaths from abortions in the developing world. NRL News debunked that myth in a multi-part series that ran in 2003 and 2004.
Third, because she gives uncritical credence to estimates of abortion-related deaths that were indefensible at the time (and later reduced), Goodman seriously misrepresents why the number of abortion-related deaths dropped in the United States, and when.
Fourth, as mentioned, she does not address the equally spurious myth that there were one million illegal abortions annually, an urban legend that is still making the rounds. And fifth, having crowned herself Queen of truth-telling, Goodman goes off on a error-ridden jag.
Goodman is correct that the ultimate source for the 10,000 figure is a "Dr. Frederick Taussig, circa 1936" contained in his book. (According to Daniel Callahan in his highly influential pro-abortion book, Abortion: Law, Choice & Morality, Taussig "arrived at a figure of 8,179 deaths each year, and then added in an extra 2,000 [roughly] to be on the cautious side: 10,000.") Even though she concedes that the data Taussig used "was admittedly skimpy by today's standards," Goodman accepts the 10,000 figure on its face.
How did he get his figure of abortion-related deaths? As we shall see in a moment, he assumed much too high a number of illegal abortions. Equally misleading, Taussig hypothesized, without much proof, a very high death rate following abortion. (The total, by the way, included deaths from spontaneous abortions - - miscarriages - - a distinction which virtually never gets mentioned.)
The rate was so high (1.2%) because Taussig assumed as a matter of faith and without explanation that there would be as many deaths concealed as detected. According to Callahan, and Germain Grisez in his classic, Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments, other researchers estimated rates that were much smaller than Taussig's. Clearly, Taussig's chain of evidence included a lot of questionable links.
In addition, what the reader of Grisez's book would know that the reader of Goodman's column wouldn't is that by a 1942 conference, Taussig was already admitting that at the time of his 1936 book, there were "the wildest estimates as to the number of abortions and to the number of abortion deaths." Referring to his revised figures, Taussig said, "They were trimmed down considerably, particularly as to the number of abortion deaths in which I attempted to find concealed abortion deaths under other causes of death....I think we can positively say that there do not occur over 5,000 abortion deaths annually in this country...." Even that number was, of course, a guesstimate, based on very thin data and a very high death rate.
But far worse than this was that right up through the 1960s and 1970s when the abortion "reform" movement was most successful in attacking protective abortion laws, advocates loudly proclaimed what they knew were utter falsehoods, or could have known with 20 minutes worth of research. And the distortions continued even two decades later, when a 1989 story in the Washington Post stated matter-of-factly that "more than 1.2 million women are estimated to have had illegal abortions each year before Roe v. Wade, and approximately 5,000 died annually as a result." Two years later, in a brief submitted in the Supreme Court's Planned Parenthood v. Casey case, the figure cited was 5,000 to 10,000 deaths. Today, we still hear those numbers bandied about today.
Goodman, 12 to 30 years later, concedes that the number of deaths from illegal abortions was 39 in 1972. (What she doesn't mention that in the same year, there were 24 deaths from legal abortions, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control!) But Goodman's penchant for half-truths shrinks to one-third truth when she explains why "Over the decades, the numbers [of abortion-related deaths] shrank to hundreds and then dozens." The one explanation she has correct is that the invention of penicillin was pivotal.
But the decline was not "because doctors began performing abortions." That had long been the case. As Grisez noted, many studies referring to the period before World War II "indicat[ed] that in every case the majority of illegal abortions was the work of physicians, midwives, or other professional abortionists."
Planned Parenthood insiders agreed. Mary Calderone, who edited the report of a 1955 Planned Parenthood abortion conference and who would later become president of Planned Parenthood, wrote in the American Journal of Public Health in 1960, "Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not just to therapeutic abortion as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions as done by physicians. In 1957 there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortion of any kind."
But this was no recent development. According to Grisez, Calderone "went on to note the decline in deaths between 1921 and 1951, and she explained it by drugs and by the large proportion of abortions performed by physicians."
Finally, Goodman's attempt to link the decline in the number of abortion-related deaths to "abortion becom[ing] legal in critical states such as New York" misses the obvious point that almost the entire drop preceded the legalization of abortion in any state.
As a large number of studies have shown, the "precipitous decline" came in the 1940s; there was no year from 1950 onward in which there was even as many as 300 recorded deaths.
Even Christopher Tietze, the pro-abortion demographic statistician Planned Parenthood loved to quote, noted that, officially, there were 189 deaths from abortion in 1966. "[I]n my judgment, the true total number of deaths due to illegal abortions, recorded and hidden, cannot be much larger than twice the reported number, or about 400 per year." (If we use that assessment, there were still fewer than 80 deaths from illegal abortions in 1972.)
To repeat, it was the introduction of antibiotics that was by far the greatest single factor in reducing abortion-related morality.
Although Goodman doesn't mention it, Taussig also offered an estimated total of 681,600 abortions, which much later became the basis for the myth of one million illegal abortions. So it's important to see how he came up with that figure.
Taussig began his statistical ladder with an extrapolation from two small previously conducted studies. Since the samples weren't large enough, he then used a wildly unrepresentative sample of 10,000 case histories drawn from the Margaret Sanger Birth Control Clinic in New York City, the results of which he proceeded to project on to the entire urban population!
For the rural ratio, Taussig used the results of questionnaires sent out by a Dr. E.D. Plass to Iowa physicians. No documentation was required. This small sample of doctors from one small state had been asked to give their own estimates for the ratio of abortions to pregnancies, Grisez tells us. Taussig projected those results onto the entire rural population.
Although this is frequently missed, the total number of abortions Taussig estimated were not limited to illegal abortions. They included miscarriages (25-30%) and "therapeutic" [legal] abortions (10-15%), as we learn from Grisez. Those who followed who projected Taussig's figures onto the now-much larger nation typically wrote as if they had all been illegal abortions. The "one million" figure assumed a life of its own.
The truth? A very careful, scholarly analysis written by Barbara J. Syska, Thomas W. Hilgers, M.D., and Dennis O'Hare, titled "An Objective Model for Estimating Criminal Abortions and Its Implications for Public Policy," concluded that "a reasonable estimate for the actual number of criminal abortions per year in the pre-legalization era [prior to 1967] would be from a low of 39,000 (1950) to a high of 210,000 (1961) and a mean of 98,000 per year."
The very knowledgeable reader might catch that Goodman had shuffled, back-tracked, and backfilled. But since only a tiny percentage could know this, Goodman could now assume she had her audience's confidence. She proceeds to go on a rampage of moral equivalency mixed with gross inaccuracies.
She starts out conceding that "early in the debate over the so-called partial-birth abortion ban, a pro-choice spokesman had to admit that he 'lied through my teeth' about the number of, and the reasons for, dilation and evacuation abortions." But this flagrant, deliberate campaign of lies is supposedly offset by those pro-lifers who link breast cancer to abortion, a conclusion which "keeps reappearing no matter how many scientists drive a stake through its heart." This misses two crucial points.
First, there are any number of reputable studies that go back over 40 years showing that a decision to have an abortion increases the likelihood that a woman will contract breast cancer. Second, even those who disagree that the association exists rarely challenge the intellectual integrity of the scientists who propound the linkage. They argue, rather, that proponents of the link either misunderstand the studies or don't take into account other factors.
In other words, even to skeptics, this is not a blatantly manipulative or dishonest effort on the part of those who have made a compelling case for the link between abortion and breast cancer. Those who for a half-century cynically inflated the number of illegal abortions and abortion-related deaths were guilty of both.
Goodman concludes with a diatribe on a tangential issue that she misrepresents.
Pro-lifers care about both mother and child. That's why it grieves us that any woman would die, whether from a legal abortion (a number that is systematically underreported) or from an illegal abortion. Since we care about every mother and unborn child, we never talk about "only" x number of deaths.
Truth matters, whether we're talking about partial-birth abortion, today's growing awareness of fetal pain, or the campaign that began nearly 70 years ago that grossly inflated the number of deaths and illegal abortions. To those on the other side, I would offer the sage advice of the legendary Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn: "Son, always tell the truth. Then you'll never have to remember what you said the last time."