The Post’s Fact Checker on pre-Roe abortion death rates

four pinocchios

I’m raising this because I found it fascinating when I saw it yesterday, for several reasons. I’m hoping to be able to raise it independently of our respective views on abortion, because this is interesting wherever you are on the spectrum.

That may be overly optimistic on my part, but here goes…

Basically The Washington Post‘s Fact Checker team took a look at the frequent claim from Planned Parenthood and other groups that if abortion bans being enacted in various states succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade, then we’ll be “going to go back in time to a time before Roe when thousands of women died every year.”

Fact Checker ended up giving the claim Four Pinocchios, which is its harshest rating of a falsehood. Having cited that, though, I urge you to read the whole thing, because the numbers are complicated and often murky, so judge the data for yourself.

For my part, I’ll make several observations:

  • As y’all know, I’m a words guy. I try to appreciate the point of view of my numbers-oriented friends out there, even though I think their insistence on reducing everything to digits can lead arguments astray on many issues. In this case, I’ve always looked askance at the numbers, whether someone is claiming the number is high or the number is low — not because I don’t think numbers are important in this instance, but because I think they are unknowable with any precision. You’re trying to count something that happened in the shadows, a dubious exercise at best. So while I see the Post‘s finding as interesting, I don’t necessarily see it as Gospel.
  • Any deaths are too many. Of course as you know (and here’s the only place I’ll refer to my views on abortion) to me every abortion is a death, and a tragedy. If the mother dies as well, then the tragedy is that much more horrific — and yes, more than twice as tragic. It should be society’s adamant goal to prevent that from happening ever. No one’s ideology should get in the way of that.
  • To that point, perhaps the most interesting data points in the piece are these: “In 1972, the number of deaths in the United States from legal abortions was 24 and from illegal abortions 39, according to the CDC.” So aside from the overall number being far, far less than “thousands” (which is the main point of the piece), it turns out that where abortion was legal, there were still more than 60 percent as many deaths as there were where it was illegal. Make of that what you will.
  • That year, 1972, is particularly relevant to the debate, because as the piece points out, a post-Roe America would most likely be most comparable to the time immediately before Roe, rather than to the decades before that (when the estimates of deaths were much higher). The main commonality is this: At that time, abortion was legal in some states and illegal in others. If Roe suddenly disappeared, I expect we’d return to a situation like that one — although my guess is that it would likely be legal in more places than it was then.

Finally, here’s the point that drew me as a journalist, and I hope it is not entirely lost among the media’s detractors: I realize that few critics of the Trumpista variety are likely to ever read this, but it they did they would see as effective a demonstration of this newspaper’s fairness regardless of whose sacred cows get gored. It’s hard to imagine a Fact Checker verdict more likely to cause distress to the political left, which the press supposedly shills for.

So I hope somebody on the right notices it, and has his or her prejudice lessened at least a bit.

Anyway, as I said, it’s interesting on a number of levels, so I thought I’d share it.

28 thoughts on “The Post’s Fact Checker on pre-Roe abortion death rates

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Wait… is this your persistent complaint that I get from you every time I have even the tiniest mention of the guy who happens to be, God help us, the President of the United States?

        If that upsets you, Doug, you’re going to get upset a lot. I am not going to serve up 100-percent-Trump-free posts in order to avoid offending your sensibilities on this point.

        In this case — really? Are you kidding? In the context of talking about people who believe newspapers are unfair, do you think there’s anyone in America today who doesn’t immediately think of Donald “Fake News” Trump, or more to the point, those who believe him? If you think that, you need to look around.

        As NoHo Hank would say, Geez Louise…

        1. Doug Ross

          So it’s more about Trump and newspapers versus deaths from abortions. Got it.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            No, Doug. In fact, that is precisely my beef with your comment. I post about deaths from abortions, and all you comment on is the brief mention, totally in passing, of Trump…

            You obsess and jump on such things, and then claim WE’RE the ones obsessing…

  1. bud

    One very, very important fact that is rarely pointed out in all the coverage of the Alabama law is that there is absolutely zero penalty to the mother if she has her zygote aborted. Big penalty for the provider but nothing for the mother. How does that even make sense? If it’s murder then the person who hires the hit man should be guilty of a crime. Seems like in the early stages of a pregnancy a woman could obtain some type of abortion drugs and do the procedure herself. Therefore the Alabama law isn’t really pro-life at all. Rather it’s just another clumsy way to prevent women from getting health care services.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I can’t imagine why anyone would want to penalize anyone but the provider. I realize that’s inconvenient to people who want to classify opponents of abortion as haters of women, but the only person I can think of who has expressed a wish to punish women who find themselves in such a situation is… and this is going to get me in trouble with Doug… the Idiot in Chief…

      1. bud

        I can’t imagine why anyone would want to penalize anyone but the provider.

        To you that makes sense. But to me it is complete gibberish. The so called “provider” can be the woman herself. She is the one seeking the procedure. She is the one paying for the procedure. She is the perp. She is the offender. And in many cases she can also be the provider. So of course any pro-life law to make sense MUST have penalties for the woman. It makes zero sense otherwise. THAT is what is inconvenient.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          “To you that makes sense. But to me it is complete gibberish.”

          And there we are, on either side of an apparently unbridgeable divide…

          1. Mark Stewart

            The problem with this issue is that both sides have twisted themselves and their “thinking” into indignant pretzels – so it’s almost impossible to untwist anyone and bring them back from the land of dogma.

            I blame Lee Atwater for the blight of the politicalation of this moral issue; I don’t think this situation can be rationally discussed in this environment – it’s like a rallying cry now for either side. It’s a stupid debate, frankly. Not the issue itself; but the way it is played out is just ridiculous.

            And Brad I am also going to pick a nit with the actual post. I don’t believe that the statistics they quote are actually believable – or “accurate.” The journalists are evaluating old data about a subject not likely to be well reported anyway, and then focus on deaths that occurred to women in either situation. I would say this is a good analysis of faulty underlying data – and therefore says nothing useful about what was, and distorts the past to fit our present times.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              Well, as I said, I always look at such numbers with doubt.

              I’m thinking, though, that the 1972 numbers probably have the best chance of being close to accurate, and a reflection of what a “post-Roe” situation would be like — if a “post-Roe” is even possible.

              But that doesn’t mean they’re right. Just that they seem to be a little more matter-of-fact — the involvement of the CDC, and the fact that so many states had legalization and therefore, I would think, more solid numbers — and maybe have a chance of being closer to right…

              1. Mark Stewart

                The data problem is the use of cause of death as “the truth.” If abortion were illegal, how many doctors and coroners would find a more shaded cause of death? Can you imagine, in say Lexington County circa 1960-72, how many might chose to be vague as to the cause of death to “protect” not just the family but the community’s image of itself?

                This has always been an issue with every “problematic” cause of death whether it be suicide, drunk driving, obesity, AIDS, syphilis, etc, etc. Statistics about actual cause of death have never been statistically knowable. Ever. That should be intuitively apparent to journalists and commentators of all stripes. We don’t need analytics to tell us that abortion (or infanticide for most of human history) was an ongoing human experience – as old as sex. Logic tells us that medically safe abortions are preferable to the alternatives. That is really all we need to know to make rational and empathetic choices as to what policies we support.

                I would give the Fact Checker’s analysis a four Pinocchio review for having the hubris to build their castle of truth upon a foundation of quicksand.

                1. Mark Stewart

                  Let’s use Tom’s numbers below as an example.

                  15 per 100,000 live births caused by illegal abortions in a year. A reduction of maternal mortality rates of 9 per 100,000 live births in the one year after abortion becomes legal. Combined, that is 24 per 100,000 live births. At the national birth rate that year (3.6+ million) that is more than 850 dead mothers from abortion-related illness – that we know of. Two factors this excludes: Some women in the year after abortion became legal were undoubtedly continuing to make use of the established underground medical treatment industry even after abortion became legal, and there were also undoubtedly deaths of child-bearing aged women that were NOT at the time classified as “pregnant” for their death certificate. That’s just common sense, no?

                  It is therefore completely plausible to say that Tom’s statistics can be extrapolated to generally support the Planned Parenthood claim with no stretch of the imagination. The same cannot be said of the WaPo’s Fact Checker analysis.

                  No, here is the mic drop you saw coming (I hope). The CDC numbers the Fact Checker quoted that Brad references were not actual numbers of death cases, the figures were, per the CDC link provided the “legal induced abortion-related deaths per 100,000 legal induced abortions.” The Fact Checker used bananas grown to relate to another’s calculation of skyscrapers built! Talk about the proverbial journalist doing math error!

                  As I said four Pinocchios to the WaPo.

                2. Mark Stewart

                  Here is another analysis: Mortality rate for adult females aged 15-60 (per 1,000 female adults) in the United States was reported at 80.23 in 2015, according to the World Bank. In 1970 this WB figure was approx. 130 per 1,000 female adults.

                  Of course many factors are contained in this drop – cancer, smoking and car wreaks to name a few. However, childbirth and abortion have to be high up there, too. I believe that is just common sense – it is certainly historically documented.

                  In 1970 the 15-60 adult female population was about 65 million. That means that at the 130 per 1,000 rate about 8.45 million women in this age range died that year.

                  In 2015 about 1.5+/-% of adult female deaths resulted from pregnancy-related issues. So, of the 95 million US adult women in 2015, 80 per 1000 died that year – that’s 7.6 million. Of these total deaths approx. 114,000 were pregnancy related.

                  Let’s just presume that this 1.5% rate also held true in 1970 (although all the evidence points to a number much higher back then). This would mean that the 1970 pregnancy related death rate would be 126,750.

                  Therefore, it is not at all hard to imagine that ~1% of this 126,750 figure would have resulted from unsafe abortions in 1970; which would be AT LEAST 1,250 deaths.

                  So here is the conjecture: If the pregnancy related death rate was actually about 2.5% of total adult women deaths in 1970, and the abortion related incidence was about 10% of the total pregnancy related deaths that year, then the number would have actually have been over 21,000 unsafe abortion deaths that year. If it would have been 20% of the total, the number would be over 42,000 deaths in that year. On this basis it is not hard to see that the 1,000 per annum figure quoted by Planned Parenthood is, if anything, exceptionally conservative.

  2. Harry Harris

    Lies, distortions, and exaggerations on any side of an argument don’t do us well. False equivalencies are about as destructive. There’s just seemingly not much commitment to truth at play in out public discourse, but I’ve never seen the level of attacking the messenger Pres Trump and his minions utilize. I’ve never seen such a large group of adherents and followers give a pass to demonstrable lies and attacks on responsible news sources as his supporters. It is past dangerous.
    Planned Parenthood, or whoever is making the fact-checked claim should respond by clarifying their basis or admitting error. The Post is doing its job, though it may make mistakes as well.

  3. Mr. Smith

    While we’re throwing around numbers about abortion, here’s another figure. It’s been estimated that during the period in which abortion was “banned” in the US, somewhere between 200,000 and 1.5 million abortions still occurred. The obvious point is: What do abortion opponents think they’re going to accomplish by “banning” abortion? Will it stop abortions from happening? Obviously not. I for one would actively participate in any effort – akin to the Clergy Consultation Service – that serves as an underground railroad in assisting pregnant women seeking abortions get from states where it is banned to those where it is not.

    All a “ban” will do is allow the anti-abortion-minded to indulge in moral pretense.

    1. Barry

      I’ve told people that banning abortions won’t stop abortions at all. I’d fly my daughter to any country in the world that was necessary if she was raped. People that are able will have all the choices they want.

  4. Tom E Stickler

    A special subcommittee of the Kentucky General Assembly held four days of hearings in April of 1972 on possible reform of the life-only abortion law then in effect. I was the lead witness, and answered questions from anti-abortion legislators for an additional fifteen minutes.

    My testimony covered the incidence of maternal death due to illegal and legal abortion in New York City as a result of abortion becoming legal in New York State up to twenty-four weeks of pregnancy as of 1 July 1970. Whereas deaths from illegal abortion in NYC had averaged over fifteen per 100,000 live births in the four years previous to the repeal, the rate dropped to 9 per 100,000 in 1971. Maternal mortality rates that were officially considered “non-abortion-related” also declined from an average of 35 per 100,000 live births pre-repeal to 26 per 100,000 in 1971. One may suspect those numbers included some undeclared illegal abortion deaths.

      1. Mark Stewart

        There were well over 3,000,000 births per annum in the US in the early 1970s. I will let you do the math. Hint, it’s statistically impossible to imagine that the number of deaths of mothers related to abortion would not be “in the thousands” per annum.

        It would be not too difficult to argue the number most likely was far far higher than that …

        I don’t tend to put much stock in Planned Parenthood’s numbers spinning, but between their’s and the WaPo’s Fact Checker, I have no problem believing PP’s claim.

        1. Doug Ross

          Would seem to be a number that could be calculated with reasonable accuracy. Doesn’t every death require a death certificate with a cause of death?

          1. Mark Stewart

            Turns and smacks head against the wall…

            Really, Doug, do you think you, or anyone else for that matter, could calculate these deaths with reasonable accuracy? This is not an I / O binary – that someone died is, however, a binary reality. How they may have passed is NEVER (statistically) knowable; not when there is every incentive in the world for the “truth” to be shaded in morally weighted situations. Obesity should be the leading cause of death in America, given that 1/3 of the population is morbidly obese. Is it the leading cause of death? No, heart disease it the listed leading cause, with stroke and diabetes right up there on the list. Coroners don’t put down obesity as the “true” cause because it’s nicer to say someone had a less freighted thing that did them in. Likewise, most people who died of AIDS we listed as dying from pneumonia. Was that true on it’s face? Yes, was it true in actuality? NO, these deaths were shaded by moral decisions. We can’t calculate directly how many people die of obesity, we can’t calculate how many people die of AIDS / HIV and we cannot calculate how many women die of complications related to abortion. In fact, we can’t even calculate how many deaths have resulted from medical care liability issues; where there is every incentive in the world to want to know this!

          2. David T

            Actually a friend of mine is a deputy coroner. There is an investigation and possible autopsy into miscarriages if the baby is over so many weeks old and/or so many grams in weight.

  5. David T

    I’d be happy if we could just get the idiot who stands in front of the State House every Thursday with the poster of the dismembered fetus to stop.

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