Family Matters

Why Abortion Is Less Risky than Childbirth

Abortions are considered high-risk, but new data suggest that the procedure is considerably safer than childbirth.

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Abortion has a scary reputation, regardless of whether you’re for or against it. But the perception that it’s a high-risk procedure isn’t rooted in truth, according to new research.

Although more than half of states counsel women on the risks of abortion, a study published online Monday in Obstetrics & Gynecology finds that a legal abortion is actually far safer than giving birth.

The research discovered that women are actually 14 times more likely to die during or after delivery than as a result of complications from abortion. “There’s a lot of stigma surrounding abortion,” says Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state policies on reproductive health for the N.Y.-based Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice reproductive health research group. “This study is telling us it’s a lot safer than having a baby.”

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Twenty-six states have intensive counseling for women who seek abortions. Some of the states distribute materials with questionable information, such as the risk of breast cancer after having an abortion or the negative impact on mental health.

“The people developing these counseling materials are not really interested in talking about the facts,” says Nash, who wasn’t involved in the study. “They are interested in persuading a woman from getting an abortion in the first place.”

That said, most of the counseling materials also includes information about the risks of pregnancy, although it can get overshadowed by the emphasis on the dangers of abortion.

The researchers, from Gynuity Health Projects in New York City and the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, looked at figures on live births and deaths linked to pregnancy or abortions, then juxtaposed that data with Guttmacher’s estimates on the number of legal abortions in the U.S.

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Between 1998 and 2005, one woman died in childbirth for every 11,000 babies born, compared to one of 167,000 women who died due to abortion complications. It’s probably not too surprising considering that women are pregnant for nine months, leaving far more opportunity for complications to arise than in an individual procedure.

Dr. Bryna Harwood, an ob-gyn from the University of Illinois in Chicago, told Reuters Health that various studies have confirmed that legal abortions are safe:

Most abortions have typically been done surgically, she told Reuters Health. But since the abortion drug mifepristone was approved for use in the United States in 2000, the number of medically-induced abortions has been on the rise.

Both methods are now considered equally safe, she said, with the main risk — though very small — coming from medication- and procedure-related infections.

Anti-abortion groups took issue with the study, complaining, as did Paul Wilson of the Culture and Media Institute in a post on titled “Reuters Pushes Biased Study Claiming Abortion Safer Than Birth,” that the researchers “were either abortion doctors or had strong ties to the abortion industry.”

Dr. Donna Harrison, director of research and public policy at the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told HealthDay News that she doubted the study’s findings and called them “speculation.”

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And so the debate continues. Of course, no one is saying that expectant mothers should terminate their pregnancies because abortion is safer than childbirth. But for those who choose abortion, it’s good to know that the procedure appears to be no riskier — and actually quite a bit safer — than giving birth.