The Washington Post released a report Wednesday debunking Planned Parenthood’s claim that “thousands” of women were dying each year from “botched abortions” prior to the federal legalization of the procedure in 1973.
The fact-check, written by Glenn Kessler in response to a reader’s question, begins with a series of tweets and statements made by Leana Wen over the past several months. In those statements, the executive director of Planned Parenthood issued repeated warnings about what she believes will happen if Roe v. Wade is overturned. In each of them, Wen makes the claim that prior to 1973’s passage of Roe v. Wade, thousands of women died annually.
“Before Roe v. Wade,” Wen wrote in an April tweet included in the Post article, “thousands of women died every year — and because of extreme attacks on safe, legal abortion care, this could happen again right here in America.”
Kessler reports that when he contacted the nation’s largest abortion provider about Wen’s claims, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Erica Sackin pointed him to a 2014 policy statement by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which put the pre-Roe v Wade mortality rate at 5,000 deaths annually. However, according to Kessler, there is no citation supporting that figure, nor an explanation as to how the number was calculated.
On the contrary, according to Kessler’s fact-check, the number of deaths due to abortion was actually in decline long before Roe v. Wade was passed.
“The advent of antibiotics such as penicillin and improved medical procedures suddenly made abortion less risky,” wrote Kessler. “Another prominent researcher, Christopher Tietze, argued in a 1948 paper that the number of deaths from abortion was rapidly declining because of three reasons: contraceptive methods had improved so fewer women were getting pregnant, abortion providers were getting better at avoiding infections, and many lives had been saved because of the introduction of sulfa drugs and penicillin.”
Kessler said that Tietze also believed that the decline was being underestimated by the data at the time.
“The reality of this decline cannot be doubted,” Tietze had written, “and the extent of the fall is in all likelihood understated by the official statistics.”
Kessler also pointed to a 1959 report by then-medical director of Planned Parenthood, Mary Steichen Calderone, who wrote that “Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not just to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions as done by physicians.”
Although some abortion advocates The Post spoke to, including former abortionist David Grimes, didn’t seem overly concerned about the inflation of numbers, Kessler himself remained firm in his view that Planned Parenthood should not be lying to the public.
“Wen is a doctor,” wrote Kessler, “and the ACOG is made up of doctors. They should know better than to peddle statistics based on data that predates the advent of antibiotics. Even given the fuzzy nature of the data and estimates, there is no evidence that in the years immediately preceding the Supreme Court’s decision, thousands of women died every year in the United States from illegal abortions.”
Kessler went on to directly criticize Wen for continuing to use the false data, comparing it to a strategy commonly used by human trafficking opponents.
“Wen’s repeated use of this number reminds us of the shoddy data used by human trafficking opponents. Unsafe abortion is certainly a serious issue, especially in countries with inadequate medical facilities. But advocates hurt their cause when they use figures that do not withstand scrutiny. These numbers were debunked in 1969 — 50 years ago — by a statistician celebrated by Planned Parenthood. There’s no reason to use them today,” Kessler concluded.
Based upon Kessler’s reporting, the Post gave Wen a total of four Pinnochios.