From the recent Republican debates to last month's contentious congressional grilling of Planned Parenthood chief Cecile Richards, it's clear that abortion will—once again—prove a major issue in the upcoming presidential election.
Yet in the public battle between "pro-life" and "pro-choice" and the sensitive discussion about when life begins—and thus, whether abortion is akin to murder—there's one argument that anti-abortion activists tend to downplay, which is that legal abortion can save lives.
While researching the history of Roe v. Wade recently, I came across a piece of testimony from way back in 1974 that perfectly makes this case. The testimony comes from Dr. Michael Levi, an OBGYN and former professor at the Columbia University School of Medicine, who was speaking before Congress on the dangers of illegal abortion as lawmakers considered adding a "Human Life Amendment" to the Constitution—which would have, essentially, overwritten the Supreme Court's landmark ruling. The amendment never passed, but both sides had the opportunity to testify.
Levi had worked at Harlem Hospital in New York City when abortions were not legal in the state, and he offered a firsthand account of how horrific they could be when not performed safely:
After stumbling on this excerpt, I decided to find the full transcript, and it is powerful. Levi goes on to say—and perhaps this is his most important point—that "The interruption of pregnancy is an old and worldwide procedure. No matter what the laws, no matter what the availability of services the decision to terminate a pregnancy belongs to the individual woman … it would be absurd to imagine that women wishing to terminate an unwanted pregnancy will not find the means to do so even if abortion is prohibited by law."
Citing statistics from the era, Levi points out that 39.6% of illegal abortions will result in complication or death, based on data from the former Soviet Union, Korea, and Chile. He concludes that "19,830,000 women each year will suffer death and complications of illegal abortions."
Today, even though abortions have gotten safer, according to the World Health Organization, 21.6 million women experience an unsafe abortion worldwide each year. Researchers have found that around 68,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions (that's about 8 every hour). But the morbidity rate is even higher—around 20 to 50% of the millions of women who undergo an unsafe abortion (i.e., one performed by an unqualified person or in an environment with poor medical standards) will be hospitalized due to complications and suffer longterm health problems, which can include hemorrhage, sepsis, peritonitis, and trauma to the cervix, vagina, uterus, and abdominal organs.
After sharing the harrowing stats, Levi drives home the point that legal abortions reduce maternal deaths. In fact, he says, from 1969 to 1972—the period in which New York City legalized abortion—the rate of maternal deaths in the city dropped from 5.9% to 2.6%. According to his testimony, the abortion law also improved infant mortality rates.
"It should be obvious," he concludes, "that legal abortion is saving lives."
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.