WaPo Gives Four Pinocchios to Planned Parenthood President

She claimed thousands of women died every year before Roe v. Wade

Planned Parenthood
Activists participate in a rally to support Planned Parenthood / Getty Images

The Washington Post‘s fact checker gave four Pinocchios to Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen's claim that "thousands" of women died every year prior to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.

Wen has claimed on multiple occasions that thousands of women died before the Supreme Court determined the Constitution protected a woman's right to an abortion.

"We face a real situation where Roe could be overturned. And we know what will happen, which is that women will die. Thousands of women died every year pre-Roe," Wen said in March, for example.

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A figure from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) claiming "as many as 5,000 annual deaths" from unsafe abortion cited by a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman lacked a citation, the Post reports.

A 1948 study argued that deaths from abortion were declining because "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."

Just over a decade later, Planned Parenthood's medical director argued abortion "is no longer a dangerous procedure," adding that in 1957, "there were only 260 deaths in the whole country attributed to abortions of any kind."

In 1969, two researchers highlighted the decline in women dying from abortion over the past few decades.

"Some 30 years ago it was judged that such deaths might number 5,000 to 10,000 per year, but this rate, even if it was approximately correct at the time, cannot be anywhere near the true rate now," they wrote.

They also argued total mortality from abortion in 1965 was likely under 1,000.

In 1972, the year that the CDC began gathering data on abortion morality, 24 women died from legal abortions and 39 died from illegal abortions.

Stanley Henshaw, who formerly worked as a researcher at the Guttmacher Institute, told the Post "it is unlikely that the actual number [of abortion-related deaths] was over 1,000" in the 1960s.

"In my opinion," Henshaw continued, "if Roe v. Wade were overturned, women would turn to relatively safe medications that can be purchased over the Internet. There would be some deaths but probably not as many as there were in the 1960s."

The Post delivered its verdict for four Pinocchios for Wen's claim:

Wen is a doctor, 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.

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.