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Report claiming rise in ‘unsafe’ abortions worldwide is disputed

By on Thursday, 19 January 2012

The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva (AP)

The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva (AP)

A British pro-life group has said that new claims that the number of “unsafe” abortions has risen worldwide are “dubious”.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) criticised a report, published today in The Lancet, which claims that the number of abortions that put the mother’s health at risk has risen by five per cent.

The claim came in a study by researchers from the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organsation (WHO), and has been seized on by pro-abortion campaigners calling for easier access to abortion.

Dr Richard Horton, the Lancet’s editor, said: “These latest figures are deeply disturbing. The progress made in the 1990s is now in reverse. Condemning, stigmatising and criminalising abortion are cruel and failed strategies.”

But John Smeaton, director of SPUC, said: “The WHO routinely makes unsubstantiated claims about so-called ‘unsafe’ or illegal abortion. It is one of the world’s major pro-abortion bodies. The Guttmacher Institute is the research arm of the worldwide pro-abortion lobby. The report is pro-abortion propaganda, and should be dismissed as such.

“Promoters of legal abortion have a proven track-record of making wildly exaggerated claims about the number of so-called ‘unsafe’ or illegal abortions. Such false claims were made in 1967 to lobby for the UK’s Abortion Act and in the 1970s to justify the US’s Roe v Wade decision. The late Dr Bernard Nathanson, the US abortion pioneer who became pro-life, admitted that he deliberately exaggerated the estimated number of illegal abortions five-fold when campaigning for abortion legalisation.

“The truth is that countries with strict laws against abortion have lower maternal death rates than countries which allow abortion widely. Ireland, where abortion is banned, has one of the world’s best maternal health records. Legalised abortion does nothing to improve medical care.”

In October 2009 the Guttmacher Institute claimed that “unsafe” abortions killed 70,000 women a year and that the abortion rate was roughly equal in regions where it was legal and where it was illegal. The figures were widely disputed.

In its 2007 report, Unsafe Abortion, the WHO conceded: “Where induced abortion is restricted and largely inaccessible, or legal but difficult to obtain, little information is available on abortion practice. In such circumstances, it is difficult to quantify and classify abortion. What information is available is inevitably not completely relaible.”

The United Nations population division calls the estimates “quite speculative since hard data are missing for the large majority of countries”.

  • http://twitter.com/Acleron1 Acleron

    Have you any evidence that the data is incorrect? You know, figures for the countries described that contradict those in the paper. I ask, because you haven’t supplied any in your article.

    Or is it that you don’t like the results?

  • Recusant

    Isn’t the point that these statistics are so difficult to measure that they are ripe for mis-representation. I haven’t seen the paper, so am prepared to be convinced otherwise, but the idea that the abortion rate is the same in a region where it is illegal is the same as where it is publicly funded and easy (eg UK) is wildy counter-intuitive, and I find it hard to think of a methodology that could prove the statement one way or the other. This makes the other claims suspicios to me.

    Of course it goes without saying that all abortions are dangerous for the foetus.

  • Alan

    It is virtually impossible to estimate the numbers of illegal abortions.  At the time of the 1967 Act, wildly varying figures were flung around by the abortion lobby to justify the new law, and as it happens, even the highest of these is lower than the number of LEGAL abortions today.  I also discovered some years ago, in connection with a proposed pro-abortion law in Portugal, that the number of deaths of women from illegal abortion being put about by the abortion lobby was GREATER than the TOTAL deaths of women from all causes at the child-bearing ages.

  • Anonymous

    The paper was published in a reputable journal, the Lancet. It is a compilation of data from various sources. The methods of data collection are described with the data. The conclusions are given with their derivation. It may be difficult to collect such evidence but researchers are trained to obtain evidence in a very rigorous way.
    If you want to criticise it then find something wrong with the data, the calculations or the derivation of the conclusions. Don’t criticise it just because you don’t like the conclusions.  

  • Anonymous

    It’s difficult to argue without reading the paper. :)
    But as far as intuition goes, it is difficult to imagine that as legal abortions are restricted the level of illegal abortions don’t rise to make up the slack. And it’s difficult to imagine that illegal abortions are as safe as legal ones. 

  • https://openid.org/locutus LocutusOP

    Even if the reports data was indisputable it still would be no reason to make it easier to have them.

    Furthermore, there’s plenty of evidence from the U.S.  showing that making it harder to kill unborn children actually reduces the total number of such killings……It has certainly not resulted in a corresponding increase in the rate of death for women och child-bearing age – none that I’ve seen asserted anyway.

  • Oconnord

    But John Smeaton, director of SPUC, said: ……… “The Guttmacher Institute is the research arm of the worldwide pro-abortion lobby. The report is pro-abortion propaganda, and should be dismissed as such.”
    If this were the case then it would follow that.
    John Smeaton’s comments, as a spokesman for SPUC, an arm of the anti-abortion lobby, are anti-abortion propaganda and should be dismissed as such.

    But there is a vital difference, the GI’s report was published in the Lancet and if I may use Acleron’s words from his comment above…

    It is a compilation of data from various sources. The methods of data collection are described with the data. The conclusions are given with their derivation. It may be difficult to collect such evidence but researchers are trained to obtain evidence in a very rigorous way.
    If you want to criticise it then find something wrong with the data, the calculations or the derivation of the conclusions. 

    John Smeaton merely makes an assertion, and a cherry-picked, bad one at that. He ignores the fact that it is equally possible given the difficulty gaining the correct information that the figures are underestimated. A point made clear in the study.

  • Recusant

    I have since looked at the paper, and I don’t think the article bears the weight of the headlines attributed to it. 

    For example, the table of data claims that the rate of unsafe abortions have risen from 44% to 49% in ten years, despite the fact that the breakdown by region shows the unsafe level to have fallen in every region except Western Asia. It is hard to see where the rate calculations come from, it is hard to see how the weightings are derived, and without confidence intervals it is impossible to know if this is significant. And the graph with three data points is simply laughable in a research paper. Without access to the references I can’t say if the numbers and models and hence the conclusions are plausible, but I certainly think that it is not a slam dunk. Remember that the Lancet is not infallible – its paper on MMR springs to mind.

    And it appears to me implausible that where the choice is between an unsafe abortion and carrying to term (for example to give up for adoption), the number of women that chose an abortion is the same as the number that choose an abortion in a country where it is legal and freely provided.

    Regardless, the safety or otherwise of an abortion is not a factor in my opinion of it. It is always dangerous for the foetus, and since I believe that, once created, a foetus is a human being I cannot support it in any circumstance.

  • Anonymous

    There are ups and downs in that table, but a 4% change is in agreement with the disclosed data.

    You are right about the graph, but it isn’t intended as a predictor, a bar chart would have sufficed and demonstrated the same effect. I’m not sure you can put confidence limits around those figures, but the data agrees with the very guarded conclusions.

    The comment about the relationship between abortion law and abortion rate I will criticise; on the basis that they have a probability figure but do not explain the null hypothesis. I would hope that it is a slope of zero.

    And you are correct that the Lancet is not infallible but I would take their papers as being of a high standard. However, there seems to be no reason to doubt their results, and quite honestly, the conclusions are extremely mild. 

    May I congratulate you on actually examining the evidence, more would benefit from doing it.

  • Recusant

    Sorry, let me clarify my point about the table. 

    I’m not saying that the numbers don’t add up, I’m saying that the number of data points that contribute to the increase is very small. Most data points actually show a decrease in the rate. Hence it only takes a small error in the points that show an increase to completely change the conclusions of the report. So the entire report depends on a few data estimates (from regions of the world where estimating any statistic is error-prone) with estimated weightings and no confidence intervals. The uncertainty is sufficient to call the conclusions “dubious”.

  • Anthony Murphy

    The lancet is a left wing rag….reputable source? They have agenda all the time.

  • Anonymous

    They obviously offended you, they often do that to people who disagree with facts and evidence.