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To Find Out Whether Outlawing Abortion Hurts Mothers, Look At Data From Chile


Chile has some of the strongest abortion laws in the world, so according to many pro-choice activists, maternal mortality must be incredibly high and abortion rates ought to be relatively consistent with countries where abortion is legal.

The situation is purportedly so bleak that a law legalizing abortion is one vote away from passing in the Chilean senate, according to Fox News. This law would decriminalize abortion before 12 weeks gestation if the life of the mother is at stake, the fetus is not expected to survive, or the conception was caused by rape. For mothers younger than 14 years old, abortion would be decriminalized up until 18 weeks of pregnancy.

This stance supposes that unplanned pregnancies will still force women to choose abortion even if it is illegal, because the consequences of an unplanned pregnancy are so horrible that women will do anything to avoid them. Without a regulated and legal way to do that, they will go to black-market abortion doctors who do not adhere to the same safety standards as regulated clinics are supposed to. This makes the procedure more dangerous for these mothers and consequently more lethal.

Why Ban It If It Won’t Help Anything

By following this logic, prohibiting abortion would do nothing to reduce abortion rates, while causing higher maternal mortality rates. Writers such as Nathalie Baptiste of The American Prospect and Joyce Arthur of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada have presented the argument for maternal mortality rate increases when abortion was restricted, and it seems to be a general pro-choice assumption.

The Guttmacher Institute also emphasizes that abortion rates are not lower in countries that have highly restrictive abortion laws, but then proceeds to say this is not necessarily because of the prohibition but because women have less access to contraception in these often poorer countries. Comparing those numbers to North America or Western Europe, where abortion laws are very liberal, is difficult to do because of this difference in contraception access.

Even though abortion rates are higher in these countries, the socioeconomic differences are a confounding variable that makes it impossible to truly evaluate if these strong abortion laws actually lower the number of abortions that would have happened if those laws had not been in place. So let’s see if the data actually support this supposition in Chile. That is more important than emotional appeals or false comparisons.

Let’s Start with a Study

Elard Koch, the director of research at the Center for Experimental Embryonic Medicine and Maternal Health in Chile, conducted a study entitled, “The Epidemiology of Abortion and Its Prevention in Chile.” Based on his research, even though it is not possible to exactly measure the number of abortions in Chile every year since they are obviously not reported to government entities, there are an estimated 13,553 and 18,071 abortions in that country every year between 2001 and 2008.

He developed these estimates by looking at the discharge records of mothers who were hospitalized for certain conditions that are consistent with poorly performed abortions or abortion-inducing drugs. Since not every woman hospitalized for bleeding, for example, necessarily had an abortion, these estimates could be a bit high.

These numbers are then modified by what Koch refers to as a failure rate. In other words, a failure is when an abortion causes complications. Obviously, not every abortion done by illegal means has complications, so those would be entirely unreported and not included in the hospital data. Koch adjusts for that to make sure that he is not missing these.

Now Let’s Do Some Calculations

During that same time period, the average number of children born per year in Chile was 239,263. Therefore, to create an interval, Chile is looking at abortion ratio of approximately 5.3 percent to 7.0 percent by dividing the number of estimated abortions by the sum of the number of estimated abortions and live births. In other words, it is the ratio between the number of children aborted out of the total number of children who could have potentially been born.

For the sake of comparison, in 2013 in the United States, the ratio is approximately 200 abortions per 1,000 live births, according to the Centers for Disease Control. To apply the same metric, the United States has a ratio of 16.67 percent, or 200 abortions per 1,200 potential live births.

The difference is striking. Even at the upper bound of Koch’s estimate, the abortion rate in Chile is still remarkably lower than the rate in the United States. That seems to indicate that prohibition does indeed lower the number of abortions overall. While it does not eliminate the problem, it seems that reduction contradicts the narrative that abortion rates will be essentially the same despite whether abortion is legal.

Turning to maternal mortality rates, then, Koch reports that Chile’s maternal mortality rate is 0.4 deaths per 100,000 live births. In comparison, the National Institutes of Health in the United States reports a maternal mortality rate of 0.6 deaths per 100,000 live births. Chile is obviously slightly lower, but the results are roughly comparable. So, at the very least, this justification for legalizing abortion doesn’t seem to hold up either. According to the pro-choice narrative, maternal mortality rates should be remarkably higher in Chile, but the evidence doesn’t seem to support that.

The narrative ultimately crumbles. The data appears to contradict the idea that either abortion rates remain constant or maternal mortality rises when legal abortions are prohibited.

This article is not a suggestion that Chile has everything figured out or is somehow beyond improvement. However, it is a call for pro-lifers to realize that we don’t need to buy into the pro-choice narrative. When we consider the data, it is not the case that protecting unborn children by making abortion illegal would either increase or even maintain the number of abortions performed or increase maternal mortality.