Does abortion improve "reproductive health?"

The evidence is in fact against this common argument. The facts are in favour of valuing the life of the unborn child.

(Murray and Carol in about 1976)

Murray&Carol in 1976

Lessons on "reproductive health" from Europe - Ian Gentles

February 05, 2010 National Post (Canadian Newspaper)

"(Canadian) Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff says abortion must be included in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's initiative to mobilize international support for maternal and child health care in the world's poorest countries. This week, Mr. Ignatieff declared: "Women are entitled to the full gamut of reproductive health services and that includes termination of pregnancy and contraception." He then added: "We've had a pro-choice consensus in this area for a couple of generations and we want to hold it."

But would Mr. Ignatieff's idea help save the lives of women and children in poor nations - which is everyone's goal? A closer look at the evidence on maternal and infant mortality in Poland suggest the answer is no.

Since the fall of Poland's communist regime, maternal mortality in that country has plunged by more than 75%. Infant mortality is down by almost two-thirds, and the rate of premature births has dropped by well over a half. The reduction in premature births is important because premature children are prone to all sorts of medical and social afflictions. Perhaps the most serious of these is a much greater chance of being born with cerebral palsy than full-term babies.

In the late 1980s, around a hundred children per year were dying before the age of five from cerebral palsy in Poland. By 2006, the number was down to five or ten per year - a greater than 90% drop. In the United States, by contrast, the preterm birthrate has jumped in recent years from 8.9% to 12.8% of all births, pointing to a corresponding increase in the incidence of cerebral palsy. (Canada's experience has probably been similar, though no figures are available.)

A woman who has one or more abortions significantly increases her risk of subsequently bearing a pre-term baby, which in turn hugely increases the risk that that baby with be afflicted with cerebral palsy. In addition to the unfathomable human tragedy that cerebral palsy represents, there is the enormous financial burden of caring for people with the disease.

Why has Poland made such strides in improving both maternal and infant health? Certainly not by spending a lot of money on "reproductive health services," to use the preferred euphemism. Poland is a poor country, much poorer than either Canada or its immediate European neighbours. The money simply isn't there for any lavish program to improve maternal and infant health. The only change that could have produced such a dramatic improvement is the documented decline in the induced abortion rate.

Since 1989, Poland has virtually banned induced abortion. According to official statistics, the annual legal abortion rate has plummeted from well over 100,000 in the 1980s to a few hundred in the 1990s, and that very low rate has been maintained up to the present. There is little evidence of a widespread resort to illegal abortion, nor have significant numbers of Polish women gone to other countries seeking abortions.

Interestingly, the only other European country where abortion is illegal - Ireland - also boasts very low maternal mortality. By comparison, countries where abortion is completely legal - the United States and Poland's immediate neighbours, Russia and Hungary - have much higher maternal and infant death rates.

If Mr. Ignatieff really cares about maternal and infant health, maybe he should take a look at how Poland and Ireland have achieved their astonishing success. If he does maybe he'll start to wonder whether increasing abortion services is really the solution.

National Post

Ian Gentles is research director at the De Veber Institute of Bioethics. He teaches a seminar in population and family history at Tyndale University College and at York University.