Statistically speaking, it’s a poor argument

Life is a risky business. Tomorrow you could walk out the door, trip on the steps and crack your skull, and end up in a coma for months, or in a casket within a few days. Or you could be on your regular drive to the office and get sideswiped by a speeding vehicle fleeing the police which causes your car to do cartwheels across the median into oncoming traffic, leaving you lying paralyzed in a hospital or similarly motionless in a Q02 Earthtone or J37 Topaz. (Those are caskets. I work in a funeral home.) Whether it’s a walk across the street or a flight across the country, traveling entails assuming a certain measure of risk.

But though statistically you’d be safer just staying in bed rather than venturing out of the house, most of us consider the risks worth taking because of other factors that compel us. Like the need to buy food to keep ourselves and our families alive. And the need to earn money with which to buy that food. So it seems that securing our lives and health by the statistics is unworkable and unwise.

An appeal to statistics, however, is exactly the basis for the next argument for abortion answered by Frank Beckwith in his book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1). It is the Argument from Abortion Being Safer than Childbirth. The claim is that a woman is morally justified in ending the life of her child rather than carrying him or her to term because the statistics show that on average more women die from childbirth than from abortion, and she has a right to protect her own life. Whether or not the statistics are accurate is debatable, and I’ll get to that in a minute. But even if they are, as Beckwith states, “The fact that one act, A, is more life-threatening on the average than another act, B, does not mean that one is not justified or obligated to perform A in specific situations where there is no prima facie reason to believe that A would result in death or severe physical impairment.” In other words, the risk must be weighed on an individual basis. Unless there is good evidence specific to that particular woman and her pregnancy that bearing the child would likely result in her death or in great physical harm, she is not justified in getting an abortion.

The author also points out that there are arguably situations “in which one is obligated to perform a particular moral action although there is statistically more risk in performing it than abstaining from it.” If you’re by a pool with your 2-year-old child and she falls into the deep end, though you may not be a great swimmer and in fact have a fear of water…a situation which statistically is more dangerous for those who choose to jump in than for those who don’t…would you be morally justified in watching her drown instead of trying to save her?

But what about those statistics favoring abortion as safer than childbirth? It seems that there are very good reasons for considering them unreliable. According to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, only 27 states require abortion providers to report complications, and no state is required to report complications to the federal Centers for Disease Control. They report that “46 states require hospitals, facilities and physicians providing abortions to submit regular and confidential reports to the state.” But guess which two states are among those not requiring it? California and New York…the two states with by far the most abortion facilities.

Furthermore, considering the continuing political and cultural contentiousness surrounding the issue of abortion, abortion providers have a vested interest in withholding information that might give the opposition more ammo. So abortion advocates challenge abortion-reporting laws and some abortion providers misrepresent the facts. Beckwith cites a Chicago Sun Times piece in which “undercover investigators in abortion clinics found that clinic employees routinely checked ‘no complications’ before the abortion was even performed.”

In addition, many post-abortion complications arise after the woman leaves the clinic. And, as Beckwith reports, “of the women who require emergency treatment after an outpatient abortion, more than 60 percent go to a local hospital rather than returning to the abortion clinic.” So these, sometimes major, complications would not be counted in the clinic’s report (if they even make one), and not likely to be reported by the hospital as abortion-related if they didn’t do the abortion.

The claim that abortion is safer than childbirth is just another poor argument for the right to kill an innocent human being. But there’s a popular and more sophisticated argument from bodily rights that still needs to be answered, and Dr. Beckwith tackles that next.

(1) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)