Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Should abortion be legalized in Africa? Why the argument fails

Writing on the "Poverty Matters" blog at the UK Guardian's website, Sharon Camp argues that abortion must be legalized in African countries to prevent women from dying as a consequence of dangerous, illegal abortions.

There are two main problems with Camp's case: one is logical, and the other is factual.

The logical problem is that her case rests on the undefended assumption that abortion is morally permissible. This is an example of the fallacy of begging the question, or merely assuming what one ought to prove.

Here's the problem. If abortion unjustly takes the lives of innocent human beings, then Camp's argument amounts to saying that because some women may hurt themselves trying to have their own children killed, we therefore ought to make it legal and safe for women to have their own children killed. This is like saying we should legalize bank robbery because it might be risky for bank robbers.

As pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren writes, "The fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of prohibiting it."

So only by assuming that abortion is not a serious moral wrong does Camp's position make sense. But she gives no reasons at all in support of that assumption.

Factually, Camp is simply mistaken on a number of counts, and thus she arrives at the wrong solution to the problem of maternal mortality in Africa.

First, the maternal mortality numbers she cites should be subject to serious scrutiny. A  2010 study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet shows, contrary to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, that maternal deaths worldwide dropped by 35 percent from 1980 to 2008. The Lancet study cites several reasons for the decline in maternal mortality, but does not include legal abortion or increased access to abortion.

United States history is instructive: Prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973, advocates of legal abortion claimed there were 5,000-10,000 women dying each year due to illegal abortion. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL Pro-Choice America, later admitted the numbers were completely fabricated in order to further the effort to legalize abortion on demand. The Centers for Disease Control reports that only 39 women died from illegal abortion in 1972 (and 24 died from legal abortion).

Second, Camp is mistaken about a causal connection between abortion prohibitions and maternal mortality. Many countries that do not permit abortion have very low rates of maternal mortality (e.g., Ireland, Chile and Poland), and many countries that permit abortion on demand have very high rates of maternal mortality (e.g., India and Russia). It is clear from the evidence that maternal mortality numbers hinge on the quality of care and medicine for women, not on abortion's legality.

In the developed world, the decline in maternal mortality coincided with "the development of obstetric techniques and improvement in the general health status of women" (from 1935 to the 1950s), according to WHO. This took place well before the widespread legalization of abortion.

Third, Camp asserts that laws prohibiting abortion have no effect on the incidence of abortion. Generally speaking, this is wrong, and demonstrably so. A reliable study concluded that abortions in the United States rose dramatically from an average of 98,000 per year to well over one million after legalization in 1973, peaking at 1.6 million per year. Stanley Henshaw of the Guttmacher Institute has explained, "In most countries, it is common after abortion is legalized for abortion rates to rise sharply for several years, then stabilize, just as we have seen in the United States." (For a host of reasons, this correlation may not be as strong in third-world countries, explains Dr. Michael New.)

From these facts, it is reasonable to conclude that if abortion is legalized in an environment lacking adequate maternal health care, more women will pursue dangerous abortions and be hurt or killed. Jeanne E. Head, R.N., UN Representative for the National Right to Life Committee, explains: "Women generally at risk because they lack access to a doctor, hospital, or antibiotics before abortion's legalization will face those same circumstances after legalization. And if legalization triggers a higher demand for abortion, as it has in most countries, more injured women will compete for those scarce medical resources."

The solution to the problems in Africa that Camp discusses is the same as that which has worked in all countries that have successfully reduced maternal deaths and saved women's lives: better health care. Not legal abortion.

Learn more about the "maternal mortality" argument for legalizing abortion here.