New Report on Abortion Deaths

September 2, 2004 | 20 comments
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A new report finds that 70,000 women per year die in unsafe abortions.

It looks to me like that is a data point that should be easy for both sides to spin. For pro-life advocates, it is further proof of the harm caused by abortion. And for pro-choice advocates, it is further proof that women need better access to safe abortion services.

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20 Responses to New Report on Abortion Deaths

  1. ed on September 2, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    Just to be clear, this is a worldwide figure, not just the USA.

    Interestingly, the news article itself is kind of misleading:

    “LONDON (Reuters) – Nearly 70,000 women, almost half of them in Asia, die from unsafe abortions each year despite government pledges made a decade ago to improve human rights and reproductive health, researchers said Wednesday.”

    This seems to imply that Asia is unusually bad, but since Asia has over half of the worlds population, it actually implies that Asia is unusually good.

  2. Nathan Tolman on September 2, 2004 at 1:15 pm

    Taken with the poor medical conditions found in some parts of Asia and China’s One Child Policy, I found it surprising it was not higher.

    This being said, 70,000 is a tragic number no matter how you look at it.

  3. Ryan Bell on September 2, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    Ed, you missed a few other little tricks in there.

    First, what governments made those pledges a decade ago? It makes it sound like all governments everywhere got together a decade ago and decided to provide safe and free abortions for everyone. Sort of global.

    Second, would a pledge to improve human rights necessarily mean improving safe abortion resources? Are those two issues really that synonymous?

    Lot’s of loaded language, if you ask me.

  4. obi-wan on September 2, 2004 at 2:28 pm

    “First, what governments made those pledges a decade ago? It makes it sound like all governments everywhere got together a decade ago and decided to provide safe and free abortions for everyone. Sort of global.

    Second, would a pledge to improve human rights necessarily mean improving safe abortion resources? Are those two issues really that synonymous?”

    In international conventions, access to health care and reproductive services IS considered a human right.

    In fact, this is recognized nearly everywhere — certainly everywhere in the industrialized nations — except the United States.

    A majority of governments did, in fact, get together quite some time ago and promise women access to reproductive health care, including abortion. If you want to see which governments made the pledges, see the list of signatories to the relevant conventions on economic and social rights.

    I have long had rather mixed feelings about our stance on this issue. Many countries pay lip service to these as human rights and then ignore them. We don’t pretend to adopt the principle, we just ignore it. I suppose that we are at least honest in some perverse sense of the term.

  5. Jason on September 2, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    “. . . 70,000 is a tragic number no matter how you look at it.”

    The 70,000 fetuses had it especially bad.

  6. Kim Siever on September 2, 2004 at 5:28 pm

    “would a pledge to improve human rights necessarily mean improving safe abortion resources”

    Ryan, the statement says “human rights AND reproductive health, not just “human rights”.

  7. Kim Siever on September 2, 2004 at 5:30 pm

    “would a pledge to improve human rights necessarily mean improving safe abortion resources”

    Ryan, the statement says “human rights AND reproductive health, not just “human rights”.

  8. Mark B on September 2, 2004 at 5:39 pm

    Jason said: ” ‘. . . 70,000 is a tragic number no matter how you look at it.’

    The 70,000 fetuses had it especially bad.”

    That’s only a fraction of the fetuses that had it especially bad. 70,000 was the number of women who died as a result of botched abortions. The number of fetuses who had it especially bad, and whose would-be mothers survived, must be in the millions.

  9. Ryan Bell on September 2, 2004 at 6:58 pm

    Kim, then what does Human Rights have to do with it? Why did that get thrown in there?

    Obi-wan, I understand that access to medical care is a basic human right. Fine. But I’ve done my share of study on human rights, and unless things have changed drasticaly in the last two years (which I admit is quite possible), there’s no consensus at all that abortion is a human right.

    And of course, even if there is, I find the proposition outrageous.

  10. Mark B on September 2, 2004 at 7:15 pm

    Access to medical care a “basic human right”??

    Really?

    If it is a right, who has the obligation to provide it? A licensed physician? A barber? A butcher? The gov’ment?

    That bevy of Platonic guardians who brought us Griswold v. Connecticut and its illegitimate offspring Roe v. Wade made a mess of rights jurisprudence. It won’t be cleaned up by adding other purported rights (a right to a cockroach free home, a right to free HBO at the Marriott, or a right to medical care) to the list.

    Why not a basic human right to a witch doctor? :)

  11. Kristine on September 2, 2004 at 8:42 pm

    Ryan, I assume the agreement they’re talking about would be what came out of the Beijing conference on women and girls (or whatever it was called) which was, if memory serves, in 1994.

    I don’t remember the exact language on reproductive health and abortion–I think they ended up with a very vague clause. No doubt Focus on the Family would have a (seriously biased) account. The UN website could probably also give you information (with a little different spin).

  12. obi-wan on September 2, 2004 at 11:11 pm

    Ryan — Outside of the United States, there is fairly broad consensus that reproductive services (which includes abortion) are part of the fundamental right of access to health care. This is fairly clear from the conventions on economic and social rights and agreed-upon statements.

    There are some very strong correlations between women’s level of poverty, level of education, and family size and/or access to birth control. Many developing countries are approaching the problem from the reproductive end, providing abortion and birth control in the hope that this will allow the level of education to go up, and poverty to go down. I would personally prefer to see the developing world tackle the problem from the education end, providing more education (and possibly birth control) in which case family size and demand for abortion should each go down, and incomes should go up.

    The current U.S. administration, unfortunately, just screams and yells a lot about abortion, without seriously addressing any of the related factors. This appears to be mostly for the benefit of the domestic audience, rather than any kind of attempt to help poor people in the developing nations. Not a productive approach.

    Mark B — Setting aside the sillier portions of your comment, governments have an obligation to provide health care, although the relevant conventions typically contain caveats limiting the obligation to provision of services within their ability to do so. If a government is spending billions on military hardware and nothing on basic health services, it may be in violation of the conventions on economic rights.

    Judging from your comment, you will doubtless be relieved to know that the United States — essentially alone out of the industrialized nations — has fairly consistently refused to join the international conventions addressing economic and social rights, or in some cases, has indicated non-acquiesence to guaranteeing basic economic and social rights.

    This has essentially nothing to do with the Skinner/Griswold line of cases.

  13. Mark B on September 3, 2004 at 9:13 am

    Obi-wan:

    It frankly doesn’t matter how many “conventions” have referred to access to medical care or to housing or to clean water or whatever as a basic human right. The language of “rights” is of little utility in the analysis of what those things mean or who is obligated to provide them to whom and on what conditions.

    The appropriate role of government, the allocation of tax revenues to national defense or to health care or education or housing or congressional junkets, should all be open to vigorous debate. My point was that using the language of rights adds nothing to the debate, and should be avoided.

    My references to barbers and witch doctors may seem silly to you, but until 200 years ago barbers were as likely to be successful in operating on you as a surgeon, and in 50 years some of what physicians do may seem as tradition-bound and irrelevant to healing as the work of witch doctors.

  14. ed on September 3, 2004 at 11:27 am

    Obi-wan,

    Perhaps what you really mean is something like: “I think that the USA would be a better place if we set up a system of universal, government financed health insurance.” It might be possible to have a productive debate on this issue.

    When you (and others) make grandiose declarations like “governments have an obligation to provide health care,” you’ve declared the debate over. You have simply sidestepped all the thorny issues: what, exactly, constitutes “health care” that the government has an “obligation” to pay for? Who is going to pay for it, and how? Who exactly is going to actually “provide” the care, and how do we get them to do that? What are the potential problems with such a system? Declaring that there is a “right to health care” doesn’t do anything to convince skeptics. (In fact, it might be counterproductive, since it conjures up images of endless lawsuits demanding that the government pay for this or that treatment.)

  15. Charles on September 3, 2004 at 11:35 am

    Its amazing to me how progressive we can be in the name of “human rights”. The only reason that phrase is used, is because no civilized or intelligent person could possibly be against human rights. Well phooey! When we talk about abortion, we are ignoring half of the human’s rights involved. How can we say we are progressive and concerned with human rights when we are more concerned with the convenience allotted to the mothers who choose to kill their own children because it is more convenient.

    I think it should be clear that I am addressing those abortions for such reasons. Rape, incest and cases where the mother’s health is in question are circumstances that can be accounted for. I am referring to the leading reason for abortion.

    These statistics are skewed even further when we question the ambiguity with which the term “unsafe abortion” is used. Is this referencing the unsafe abortions where it is legal and just not safely available or is it referencing the unsafe conditions worldwide which would obviously be a greater number when factoring in the illegal locations it is performed.

    I also fail to see the connection between reproductive health and human rights. This is not about the rights to control one’s reproductive organs but the right to reproductive health. This is a matter of health care and the rights to it.

    Lastly, this is an issue that obi-wan brought up.

    “In fact, this is recognized nearly everywhere — certainly everywhere in the industrialized nations — except the United States.”

    The issue isn’t that the US doesn’t recognize the importance of health care. It’s the continuing debate over what constitutes health care. Right now there are millions of people that want care for things that are quite frankly not really necessary. Cosmetic surgery and eye surgery are two examples. There are medicines people want access to that should not qualify. The question is what is a basic right and what is a premium. Even when it comes to extending life we should ask how far to extend it. When will we step back and say we are living longer than we should. We are failing to stop and pause at the question, not “can we do it?” but should we?

    I for one believe that abortion is a choice, and not a good one. It is questionable for the very reason it terminates life, in most cases because of convenience not need. This is certainly the case where it should not be provided by health care, and I believe it should not be legal either.

    Legality often disguises immoral behavior as acceptable. When an act is condoned by the state, the people often believe there is nothing wrong with it. Illegalizing abortion would save millions of lives. And the number of women wanting to go through with it will decline as they realize it is wrong and not a matter of convenience.

  16. obi-wan on September 3, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    Ed: “Perhaps what you really mean is something like: ‘I think that the USA would be a better place if we set up a system of universal, government financed health insurance.’

    No, what I meant is what I said: There are treaties and international conventions that obligate governments to provide basic services, including health care, education, police protection, etc. How they do it is largely their business, as long as they do it.

    “When you (and others) make grandiose declarations like ‘governments have an obligation to provide health care,’ you’ve declared the debate over.”

    Perhaps, in the sense that making grandiose declarations like Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances declares the debate to be over.

    We had a debate, we put the result in writing, and the writing creates governmental obligations — unless, as I said, you are the U.S., which has tended to opt out of and/or ignore the writings regarding economic and social rights.

    Charles: “I also fail to see the connection between reproductive health and human rights.”

    I’m sorry to hear that, because I was as lucid on this point as I think it is possible to be. As I said originally, I don’t necessarily agree with the way that the developing world is trying to approach economic rights, but the connection to reproductive services is very, very clear.

    “The issue isn’t that the US doesn’t recognize the importance of health care. It’s the continuing debate over what constitutes health care.”

    No, the issue really is that the US doesn’t recognize the importance of health care. Depending on whose figures you use, there are something like 45 million Americans without affordable access to basic health services — not cosmetic surgery, not heroic life-prolonging treatments, not exotic alternative medicines. Just basic services like a yearly check-up by a physician or a dentist.

    I told Mark B that if a government is spending billions on military hardware and ignoring provision of health services, it may be in violation of its international convention obligations. I had in mind a regime like North Korea, but am uncomfortably aware that the same charge could credibly be leveled at us. Except of course, that both we and North Korea have done our best to avoid such formal international obligations, presumably knowing in each case that we were going to spend the money on guns rather than on doctors.

    It’s really not an international club that we should be proud of joining.

  17. Charles on September 3, 2004 at 6:26 pm

    Obi-Wan

    I’m not completely familiar the various international conventions you are citing. But you seem to be saying that all nations are under an obligation to abide by thier findings and it seems that they are obligated regardless of whether they attended or agreed. Like I said I don’t know, but to me sovereignty dictates that no foreign government can dictate what the US is obligated to do.

    Furthermore, I believe the debate is very much a matter of what is considered healthcare. I agree that there may be millions of people that don’t have affordable healthcare, but healthcare is an industry driven by economics and in a free trade society we cannot oblige those companies to bankrupt themselves to provide a socialist health care system.

    Since we, speaking as Americans, are willing to entertain the idea that government should provide some kind of health care the debate becomes what to allow and who gets it. If I have a job that offer’s healthcare and I opt to pay for it, why should I pay, when someone else gets it for free. Shouldn’t we all get it for free? If its being provided by the government who pays. The answer is the taxpayer.

    The churches own welfare system recognizes that families first have the obligation to help thier family members, then after those resources are exhausted the church may assist.

    We are assuming that people have basic social rights, that in my opinion stretch beyond what government is really responisble for. However, one thing that I would be in favor of if health care is adopted as it is in progress of being is for government to set expectations and hold people accountable.

    Why pay for cancer treatment or liver transplants if the patient is an avid smoker or drinker and the illness is related to something that could reasonably have been avoided. Going further down that slipery slope, what about those who eat unhealthy foods. Should the governement then be excempt from paying for treatments related to heartdisease and arthritis?

    I think this is a very valid debate. If the taxpayers are going to pay for your treatment then surely we have our own right to determine how that money is spent.

    That is also why we must first determine if the government has that responsibility. If we find that it does, we need to debate how it applies to various situations.

  18. ed on September 3, 2004 at 6:27 pm

    obi-wan: If you mean “governments that have agreed to provide health care have the obligation to provide health care,” then I agree with you. I thought you were making a broader point about moral obligations that fall on all governments.

  19. Mark B on September 3, 2004 at 6:28 pm

    Obi-Wan,

    My initial comment was not intended as the opening salvo in a discussion of “socialized medicine” (ah, that great shibboleth) or a debate over how the government should meet its responsibility to spend our money to provide for the national defense (against all enemies, foreign and domestic, viral or microbial). I was trying to state a more fundamental proposition: That we should avoid loose talk about rights when we mean “goods” (in the economists’ sense) or priveleges or aspirations.

    Your quoting the First Amendment illustrates my point. The language of that amendment preserves to us certain rights (free speech, press, religion assembly), and imposes on others (Congress, and by judicial interpretation, the rest of the governments, state and federal) certain obligations (butt out of those things). It does not, however, impose any such obligations on me as a private citizen. In fact, your exercise of your constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech could result in my punching you in the nose. (I could be charged with assault and battery, but not with a constitutional violation.) Similarly, despite the hue and cry about censorship when a TV network decides not to run a program that it has decided steps on the wrong toes, the network has no obligations under the First Amendment–only the government has.

    What do we mean, then, if we say that health care is a basic human right? Who is obligated to provide that? Physicians? Hospitals? The government? If there is no person so obligated, how can we speak of there being a right?

  20. Nathan Tolman on September 3, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    Just a few points.

    1. The Health service was mention in the US. The US Health service looks after public health issues (sanitation, disease, etc.) and does not hire doctors to practice medicine. I could be wrong on this.

    2. Socialized Healthcare does not guarantee that everyone will get even basic health care. I say this because even if people are “covered” and have a “right” to care, if they do not have actual access to care, it is as if they were not covered at all.

    For example my father-in-law went to see the doctor in Hong Kong, where they have socialized care based on the British system. I wonder how often this happens to poor people over there who can not afford to go to the better, private hospitals. He waited for three hours until he was able to see the doc, who, after checking him out, told him to get back in line because the fee paid to him by the government for a checkup did not cover his costs. You also hear about year long waiting lines in Canada for mammograms, when in the states one can get on in the same week if not the same day as calling one’s doctor. I have not even started on fairly standard, lifesaving procedures, like the removal of tumors, that people have to wait for as their problem gets worse. Sometimes these people die. How is the end result of this any different than if these people were not covered?

    One more question. If socialized medicine is such a cure for a system like ours, why do private healthcare systems often sprout up besides socialized care? Could it be that socialized systems do not work well at all?