On Line Opinion 15 November 2004
As senior government figures state their view that there are too many abortions, especially late abortions, and as pro-choice voices raise the spectre of backyard deaths if abortions are restricted by law, it is time to correct the historical and clinical misconceptions surrounding the “myth” of the backyard butcher.
There is no denying the power of the “No coat-hangers” cry raised by abortion pressure groups in response to recent public statements by politicians, but it is the power of emotional blackmail. It says to citizens, if you put any limits at all on abortion, women will die again in the backyard, and you will be responsible.
If that vision is valid – of women dying as a result of making certain abortions illegal – then of course no democracy will enforce the law. Even those people who are dismayed at the prospect of unlimited abortion, at any stage of pregnancy, by any brutal method, are even more dismayed at the thought of women dying again in droves at the hands of backyard butchers. Debate is paralysed.
If however, that vision is an illusion: if the whole backyard butcher scare campaign can be discredited by a few historical facts and we understand that women need not die as a result of laws limiting abortion, then the debate can move on.
Fact one: Making abortion legal or illegal has never, historically, made the slightest difference to the safety of women. This is because of fact two: Medicine alone, not the law, has achieved all the gains in maternal safety.
These gains were made by medical breakthroughs such as the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, blood transfusion, improved surgical techniques and emergency services, and were achieved before there was a single liberal law or “safe legal clinic”. If these legal changes made any additional contribution to safety, it is too small to show up in the historical records.