Athena Talks
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Athena Talks

Banning Abortions Kills Women

And doesn’t even stop the abortions

Credit: Susan Kotzur-Yang

One of the strangest things about the abortion debate is that virtually the entire thing rests on a single assumption. And while it may be a reasonable assumption to make, perhaps, it is also fascinating that virtually no one ever really questions whether it is true.

It goes like this: banning abortions prevents abortions.

Makes sense, right?

Banning alcohol, for example, was famously effective during Prohibition times

It is something that every anti-abortion activist assumes, and the major driving factor behind movements like the one in the US to reverse Roe v. Wade.

The problem is, this is just not the case. There’s no evidence that banning abortions reduces the rate that they happen. In fact, the evidence suggests that the only thing banning abortions is effective at is killing women when they attempt unsafe, at-home abortions without medical supervision.

Safe Medical Services

Studying abortion bans is actually quite a difficult thing to do. It’s usually a wide-scale intervention, and it makes people quite unwilling to talk to researchers because they may have committed a crime if they did have an abortion.

Nevertheless, there is evidence.

The US has now twice instituted the global gag rule, a decision to stop any foreign aid spending that even tangentially touches abortion services anywhere in the world. We don’t have great data from the newest version — it was fairly recent — but there is quite a lot of research on the last iteration.

Surprisingly, when you shutter services that provide medical care to women, abortion rates actually increase. Last time the rule was implemented, abortion rates almost tripled in only a few years. And remember; the safe, medically supervised abortions had disappeared. These were back-alley, dangerous procedures that resulted in a sharp rise in related deaths.

When I say unsafe, I mean it. Making women desperate enough to jump off a roof is not a great healthcare policy. Source: WHO

And we can see this more broadly. Rates of abortion in Latin America, where most countries have bans of one kind or another, are far higher than in the US. Evidence from the US on state-level restrictions has shown that attempting to ban the services has no impact on abortion rates.

So what does work?


It is, perhaps, completely unsurprising that there is one thing that reduces the rate of abortions. Countries around the world have adopted policies to encourage it, because it doesn’t just prevent abortions, it also improves conditions for women in myriad other ways.

I’m talking, of course, about effective access to contraception.

Pictured: Prevents abortions

And there is global evidence that this is true. Developing countries such as Turkey and Tunisia saw a huge drop in abortion rates when contraceptive use increased. The WHO has concluded that “ Access to modern contraception can reduce…the need for abortion”. In general, when you provide good contraceptive services to women in need, it stops them from getting pregnant which takes abortion out of the equation entirely.

This should come as no surprise.

Contraceptive services also have other benefits. Increased use of contraception is associated with reduced infant mortality — as women can time their pregnancies and avoid dangerous points in their life — reduced teen pregnancies, and even reduced risk of maternal mortality for women who carry their pregnancies to term.

Banning Abortion Kills

Ultimately, there is quite a bit of evidence that banning abortions is ineffective at preventing abortions, and that it drives women towards unsafe and potentially deadly methods instead.

The most effective way to reduce the number of abortions is to provide cheap, accessible women’s health services — as seen in the US through Planned Parenthood — and to improve access to contraception more broadly.

Banning abortions will almost certainly see more women die as they attempt to get rid of unwanted pregnancies with drain cleaner, or at “clinics” run by unscrupulous shysters with little to no medical training. The stories of unsafe abortion before Roe v Wade are both numerous and terrifying. Complications like vaginal perforations, pelvic sepsis, uncontrollable bleeding, and intestinal hernias are not uncommon when the person performing the abortion has no idea what they are doing.

There is just no evidence that banning abortions stops women from seeking them. It just drives them to dangerous, underground services.

The best way to prevent abortions is with contraception.

The best way to kill more women is to ban legal abortions.

Which one do you choose?

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