The Myth of the Back Alley Abortion

By Andy Kirchoff

Pro-life activists, in their zeal for defending the unborn, often address pro-choice arguments simply by demonstrating the humanity of the unborn child. The ideological foundation of the abortion rights movement (“Women have a right to choose!”) looks like cynical sloganeering when a pro-lifer demonstrates that this “choice” is the murder of an unborn child. The fact that a “right to privacy” is ostensibly guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution seems irrelevant at best and inhumane at worst when an ultrasound can demonstrate the humanity of the unborn child with a peculiar but undeniably powerful poignancy.

Sometimes, however, pro-choice polemicists employ a more subtle argument. It focuses neither on legal technicalities nor the antiquated canards of the “Old Feminism” of the 1960’s. In fact, it attempts to seize the moral high ground and pull the proverbial rug out from under the pro-life movement. It has many variations, but typically goes something like this: “Women will undergo abortions even if the procedure itself were to be made illegal; if abortions were forced underground, women would just be subjected to the dangers of “back-alley” abortions – if abortion is kept legal, we can at the very least guarantee women the safety of regulated medical care.”

This argument tends to have particular resonance with pro-lifers. It implies both that the legality of abortion ensures the well-being of women AND that outlawing the procedure doesn’t help to reduce the number of abortions anyway. Since pro-lifers maintain that all human life, from conception to natural death, is sacred and precious, the accusation that our political position leads to the death of the mother in addition to the death of the unborn child puts us in an obvious predicament.

The truth behind the argument, though, is quite different than the pro-choice claims would have you believe. For one, the forerunners of the modern pro-choice movement would disagree with the assertion that abortions were unsafe prior to their legalization. In 1960 (that’s 13 years before Roe V. Wade for those who are keeping score), Dr. Mary Calderone, who was then medical Director for Planned Parenthood, wrote (even as she was promoting legalized abortion) that “Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure….whether therapeutic or illegal, is in the main no longer dangerous, because it is being performed by physicians.”

Likewise, the Annenberg Foundation’s non-partisan states that “…From the 1940s through the 1960s…the best available evidence shows a dramatic decline in abortion-related deaths occurring even before the first states liberalized abortion laws in 1967.”

Given these facts, the idea that women would resort to “back-alley” or “coat-hanger” abortions en masse if Roe V. Wade were to be overturned seems quite specious, if not absurd. However, the other, more subtle claim from this particular pro-choice argument (that abortions won’t decline in number if made illegal) is also contradicted by statistical evidence. The Center for Disease Control, which has been compiling abortion data since 1970, has published numerous reports that show that the number of abortions jumped dramatically each year following Roe V. Wade. In the year 1970, just fewer than 200,000 abortions were performed; by 1977, the number had eclipsed 1 million, and continued to rise for another 13 years. Legalization of abortion is unquestionably correlated with an increase in abortions, not a decrease.

Despite pro-choice claims to the contrary, then, the available statistical evidence is actually a bane to the case for legalized abortion. Pro-lifers, already accustomed to arguing for the humanity of the unborn child from a scientific point of view, have nothing to fear from such information – on the contrary, pro-lifers should embrace these facts in the fight to protect both women and unborn children from the scourge of abortion, as they serve to bolster our case, not hinder it.


Calderone, Mary Steichen. “Illegal Abortion as  a Public Health Problem.” American Journal of Public Health.  Vol. 50 No. 7.  July 1960.

Center for Disease Control “Abortion Surveillance – 2005.” November 28, 2008. 

One thought on “The Myth of the Back Alley Abortion

  1. This is an excellent article I want to share around, but I think you may have a typo in it on a key point. You say, “For one, the forerunners of the modern pro-choice movement would disagree with the assertion that abortions were unsafe prior to their illegalization.” But I think that last word should be “legalization.” Otherwise, this sentence doesn’t make sense to me. I hope you can change that (if I’m right), so I can share this around & have it make sense. Thank you so much, & God bless you!

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