Is Abortion Safer than Childbirth?

A Planned Parenthood facility in St. Paul, MN (photo credit: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
A Planned Parenthood facility in St. Paul, MN (photo credit: Fibonacci Blue via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

You have probably heard the phrase, “abortion is safer than childbirth,” just as you have probably heard late-term abortions are “rare” and performed only for serious medical reasons.  But that’s only because the media repeats these authoritative-sounding clichés so often, not because they “emerge from the data,” as scientists like to say.

How safe is legal abortion?  How rare are late-term abortions?  The honest answer is: we don’t know.  Almost 50 years after Roe v. Wade, we still haven’t bothered to create an abortion reporting system that gives us the data to answer those questions. As leading attorney Clarke Forsythe and University of North Carolina OB-GYN John Thorp, M.D., thoroughly write in their recent op-ed, “[N]umerous, long-standing problems at the state and federal level illustrate that the abortion data collection and reporting system in the United States is haphazard and dysfunctional.”

Most births take place in hospitals, and complications from childbirth for mother and child therefore are well-documented.  Most abortions take place at freestanding clinics that have little incentive to collect and report data on problems or complications.  Abortion clinics also often receive odd political protection from ordinary health regulation and oversight.  When women develop complications, abortion clinics tell them to go to the emergency room, because abortion clinics don’t really have much in the way of healthcare resources to offer. Whether the health complication gets reported as a consequence of abortion or miscarriage or something else depends on what the hospital is told and chooses to record.

It’s not that getting good data on abortions and abortion complications is expensive or unfeasible.

Take Minnesota, for example, which is one of a handful of states with low-cost, good-quality and rapidly produced state abortion reporting.  Minnesota law, enacted more than a decade ago, requires state abortion totals, demographics and trend information to be collected and published in a formal report not more than six months after the calendar year in which the abortions occurred.  The legislature requires the state Department of Health to publish the report along with the cost of producing it, and to make it available online for the public to review.  The cost of the report for all of 2013, which was released on-time on July 1, 2014, was $4,000, including staff time and printing expense.  The report, with 27 tables of information, can be conveniently reviewed and compared to prior-year reports on the same website.

Why don’t we have good data collection and reporting from all 50 states?  The answer is not lack of means or money, but lack of will.

A federal government that supplies massive infusions of cash to state health care systems can certainly find ways to condition certain monies on the states’ creation of a threshold abortion reporting scheme to protect women’s health.  The suggested form two decades ago from the National Center for Health Statistics was a good start, but that project, which would have moved abortion data collection away from the ideologically oriented CDC and competed well with the legal abortion champion Guttmacher Institute, failed for lack of funding.

How safe are abortions for the women who choose them?  We don’t know and won’t know until we care enough about women’s health to collect the data. America needs unbiased and accountable tracking of abortion and its complications.

Chuck Donovan is president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the education and research arm of Susan B. Anthony List.