Abortion as a Medical Hazard

From page 40 in Defending Reproductive Rights 2000 Edition


Many anti-choice groups have begun to claim that abortion should be outlawed, severely restricted or otherwise discredited because it is too dangerous. They assert that the abortion procedure itself has serious safety problems: that abortion providers do not maintain high standards in their clinics, and that abortion is linked to, or actually causes, illnesses ranging from depression to breast cancer. This shift in focus to an apparent concern for the well-being of women makes it seem that one can hold anti-choice beliefs and have the interests of women in mind. The fetus is no longer the only focus of the debate. Now, the Right wants us to think it is possible to be against abortion and to be in support of women at the same time.

Anti-choice advocates interpret scientific studies to support their assertion that abortion is dangerous to women and use them to support a call for the abolition of abortion. In reality, their use of this information is misleading. They are driven by an agenda that uses a political goal to exploit the complexity and technical nature of scientific research.

This campaign to discredit abortion as a medical procedure also seeks to demonize abortion providers by accusing them of being irresponsible, incompetent and/or greedy. Thus abortion becomes dangerous because it is practiced by dangerous men.

What the Right Says About the Medical Hazards of Abortion

Many anti-choice groups seek to represent abortion as a procedure that carries serious physical and psychological risks. They claim that abortion is more risky than most people believe, asserting that a single abortion may result in severe infection, intense pain, long-term gynecological problems, permanent infertility or even death. Multiple abortions, they say, create even more risks. Claiming that many abortion providers do not inform women fully of these risks, some anti-choice advocates encourage women to file malpractice claims against abortion providers. Some suggest that patient consent forms are invalid if signed without full disclosure of the risks involved, with risks defined by the anti-abortion movement.

Some groups have said that abortion can also be risky at a clinic, the location where most abortions take place. Anti-choice advocates have charged that abortion practitioners care less for their patients and are less committed to them than a woman’s primary care provider, because most abortions take place at privately run clinics. “The doctor performing the abortion is likely to be a stranger of whose skill and experience a woman knows very little,” warns the National Right to Life Committee.


Legal abortion is one of safest types of surgery. A first trimester abortion is associated with fewer and less serious health risks than many other common medical procedures, including childbirth. Some pro-choice advocates have said that the most dangerous part of the abortion experience for many women is struggling past anti-abortion protesters at clinic doorways. The claims that abortion clinics practice under standards that are lower than the medical industry in general are false. Isolated incidents of individuals who have, in fact, experienced medical complications are touted as evidence of widespread incompetence on the part of practitioners. Many pro-choice organizations provide more objective information about the actual level of risk for infection and other potential medical complications.

Representing abortion as a risky medical procedure is designed to frighten women from seeking abortions. Since choosing to have an abortion is a legal option, this tactic is focused on deterring a woman from making such a choice. These scare tactics are based on inaccurate or unscientific interpretations of existing studies. Much of the public health and medical literature cannot be interpreted easily by people not trained in these fields, and much of the “evidence” presented by pro-life groups is unsubstantiated.

Statistics about complications from abortions are often misused, exaggerated or even invented by the Right. Often a risk is mentioned without indicating its actual level; while it is true that women have died as a result of complications associated with abortion, the rate of death is ten times less than the rate associated with childbirth. Another common practice is to dispute the accuracy of government statistics, especially those from the US Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet another is to quote material from pro-choice publications out of context or in a way not intended by its authors. All these approaches are designed to discredit the source, and they do not, as the organizations claim, provide accurate information to women seeking the truth about abortion.

Some pro-life organizations initiate malpractice suits against abortion providers in an attempt to disrupt abortion clinics. While these actions are usually frivolous, they nevertheless succeed in affecting a clinic’s financial health and its reputation. Often the suits focus not on anything the clinic did, but what it allegedly failed to do. For instance, groups will claim that the provider did not adequately inform a woman of all the risks associated with abortion, even though many of these risks have been fabricated. Then they charge that the clinic failed to inform the patient of these risks as they define them.