The Coat Hanger Counterargument

There are many common counterarguments to the belief that abortion in almost all cases is wrong, but one of the most prevalent ones is what I call the “coat hanger counterargument.”

This argument claims that the banning of most abortions is immoral because it leads to death. It postulates that women, without access to abortions, will start manually performing their own abortions, most commonly, with a coat hanger. This kind of abortion is dangerous, and has a significantly higher likelihood of killing both the woman and the baby. However, is this really true?

Straight-up Speculation

A common claim of abortion advocates is that maternal deaths from abortions significantly dropped after Roe v. Wade. However, it is impossible to assert this based on the simple fact that before Roe v. Wade, the number of maternal deaths from abortion was not reported. Any claim regarding the number of maternal deaths from illegal abortions is purely speculative. However, it is a fact that abortion industry insiders were circulating false numbers. Bernard Nathanson, abortion insider, founder of National Alliance to Repeal Abortion Laws (referred to as NARAL, and now called NARAL Pro-Choice America), and former director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health in New York City (once the largest Western abortion clinic), actually admitted to this.

“How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In NARAL we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always ‘5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.’ I confess I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose others did too if they stopped to think of it. 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? The overriding concern was to get the laws eliminated, and anything within reason that had to be done was permissible”

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, NARAL founder and former director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health in NYC

Even if you look at maternal deaths as a whole, and not maternal deaths by abortion or illegal abortion, you never see an increase in the velocity of maternal death rates going down.

Back-Alley Butchering

Another criticism of pro-life advocates is the “back-alley butcher” issue before Roe. v. Wade. However, another abortion industry insider disagrees with this claim. A former medical director for Planned Parenthood, Dr. Mary Calderone, estimated that out of all the illegal abortions performed, 90% were done by licensed doctors.

“they are physicians, trained as such…Abortion, whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous, because it is being done well by physicians”

Dr. Mary Calderone, former medical director for Planned Parenthood

A large percentage of the remainder were done by nurses, midwives or others with similar medical knowledge. Even the term “back alley” referred to how women were instructed to secretly enter the doctor’s office to get abortions, not to where abortions were actually performed.

Availability and Aspirations of Abortion

The entire general point of the “coat hanger counterargument” is contingent on the fact that if abortion becomes illegal, many women will seek out illegal abortions. However, this is not the case. Women undergoing legal abortions were surveyed, and only 6 to 20 percent would have considered seeking an illegal abortion if it was not legally available- confirming the fact that legalizing abortion has led to about ten legal abortions for every one illegal one we try to prevent (see Aborted Women, Silent No More, 289-291).

Rudimentary Reporting

Another important note is the way abortion deaths are reported nowadays. The deaths from legal abortions are greatly underestimated, as several states have failed to report abortion data for many years (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Abortion Surveillance–United States, 2007,” 3, 36), and the way causes of death are reported are misleading, like saying a death happened from a “hemorrhage” instead of an “induced abortion” (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Pregnancy-Related Mortality Surveillance–United States, 1991-1999,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Surveillance Studies 52, no. SS-02 (2003)).

Empirical Evidence

Empirical data also shows that restrictions on abortion do not correlate with a rise in maternal deaths. Data complied by Polish government agencies shows a decrease in maternal deaths once abortion was made illegal (Center of Information Systems of Health Care, “Demographic Situation in Poland,” Statistics Research Program of Public Statistics, 2001-2003; and Polish Central Statistical Office, “Demographic Yearbook,”1995-2003). Malta, another country with substantial abortion limitations has an extremely low maternal death rate (8 in 100,000). This is even lower than America’s 11 in 100,000.

Conclusion

The “coat hanger counterargument” is not a legitimate pro-choice argument. Pre-Roe v. Wade data on maternal deaths from abortion is unfounded and speculation. The decrease in maternal deaths in general was not boosted by Roe v. Wade. The vast majority of illegal abortions were actually performed by people with medical experience. Many women would not seek out abortion if it was illegal. Restrictions on abortion don’t correlate with a rise in maternal deaths. All this evidence points to the fact that this common argument is unfounded and illegitimate.

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