Assertions that limiting or banning abortions would lead to widespread death among women have always been based on hyperbole. Just listen to what Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL, admitted:
We aroused enough sympathy to sell our program of permissive abortion by fabricating the number of illegal abortions done annually in the U.S. The actual figure was approaching 100,000 but the figure we gave to the media repeatedly was 1,000,000. Repeating the big lie often enough convinces the public. The number of women dying from illegal abortions was around 200-250 annually. The figure we constantly fed to the media was 10,000. These false figures took root in the consciousness of Americans convincing many that we needed to crack the abortion law.
Another myth we fed to the public through the media was that legalizing abortion would only mean that the abortions taking place illegally would then be done legally. In fact, of course, abortion is now being used as a primary method of birth control in the U.S. and the annual number of abortions has increased by 1500% since legalization.
Add to that a study by Dr. Elard Koch, an epidemiologist from the Department of Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Chile who has completed a study on the effects of banning abortion in Chile:
In Chile, therapeutic abortion was prohibited in 1989 since it was considered unnecessary for protecting the life of the mother and her baby. From the perspective of the Chilean medical practice, the exceptional cases in which the life of the mother is at risk are regarded as a medical ethics problem to be solved by applying the principle of double effect and the concept of indirect abortion.
Thus, in Chile, exceptional problems that require medical intervention to save the life of the mother are considered a decision of medical ethics and not a legal issue. Therefore, any kind of directly provoked abortion was prohibited in 1989, in agreement with Article 19 of the Chilean Constitution which protects the life of the unborn.
The second question — does it save lives? — is very complex and important. We can address this important issue from different perspectives.
First, from a public health view, restrictive laws are hypothesized to cause a dissuasive effect on the population, similar to restrictions on tobacco or alcohol consumption. We observed that reduction of maternal mortality in Chile was paralleled by the number of hospitalizations attributable to complications of clandestine abortions. While over 50% of all abortion-related hospitalizations were attributable to complications of clandestine abortions during the 1960s, this proportion decreased rapidly in the following decades.
Indeed, only 12-19% of all hospitalization from abortion can be attributable to clandestine abortions between 2001 and 2008. These data suggest that over time, restrictive laws may have a restraining effect on the practice of abortion and promote its decrease. In fact, Chile exhibits today one of the lowest abortion-related maternal deaths in the world, with a 92.3% decrease since 1989 and a 99.1% accumulated decrease over 50 years.
Second, from the perspective of human life, especially if a developing country is looking to simultaneously protect the life of the mother and the unborn child, a plausible hypothesis after the Chilean study is that abortion restriction may be effective when is combined with adequately-implemented public policies to increase educational levels of women and to improve access to maternal health facilities. A restrictive law may discourage practice, which is suggested by the decrease of hospitalizations due to clandestine abortions estimated in Chile.
Third, from the perspective of protecting human life from the very beginning, obviously, abortion restriction saves many lives, in contrast to countries where elective — on demand — abortion is allowed, because in these countries all the unborn lose their lives.
Finally, it is necessary to remark that our study confirms that abortion prohibition is not related to overall rates of maternal mortality. In other words, making abortion illegal does not increase maternal deaths: it is a matter of scientific fact in our study.