Analysis Abortion

National Right to Life Director Admits Pregnancy Is Riskier Than Abortion

Sofia Resnick

At last weekend's National Right to Life Committee's convention, Mary Spaulding Balch criticized the legislative strategy used by other anti-choice groups to pass 20-week abortion bans by claiming the procedure is dangerous to women. The proper approach, she said, is to base the argument around the unborn.

The state legislative director of one of the nation’s leading anti-choice organizations recently contradicted a key refrain of the anti-choice movement when she admitted that abortion is safer than many common medical procedures, including delivery.

During a political and legislative strategy session at the National Right to Life Committee’s annual convention held last weekend in Louisville, Kentucky, Mary Spaulding Balch said current data shows that abortions—including riskier second-trimester abortions—carry fewer risks of death than vaginal births, cesarean sections, and plastic surgery procedures, such as facelifts and liposuction.

In making this point, Balch criticized the legislative strategy used by other anti-choice groups to pass bans on abortion after 20 weeks by claiming the procedure is dangerous to women. The proper approach, she said, is to base the argument around the unborn.

“Who would ever say that we should ban liposuction because of the risk to the women?” Balch said, after reading off statistics claiming that on average there are .19 deaths for 1,000 liposuction procedures, compared to .09 deaths for every 1,000 second-trimester abortion procedures. “Who’s going to win that debate?”

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It’s no secret that the National Right to Life Committee has always framed anti-choice arguments around saving the unborn, while other advocacy groups in the movement have opted to focus on the woman’s physical and mental health as part of their legal and political strategy. But it is rare for anti-choice leaders to publicly admit that abortion is actually safer than pregnancy or other common medical procedures.

“If we were to argue, for instance, that abortion should be banned at, say, 20 weeks because late abortions are dangerous to the mother’s health, let’s look at the fact of abortion,” Balch said to an auditorium of roughly 100 people, many of them members or leaders of state National Right to Life affiliates. “You know that a mother’s risk of death by abortion after a particular time—in this instance let’s say 20 weeks pregnant—the risk to the mother’s life rises to .09 [for] every 1,000 abortions. But let’s compare the other risks of a woman’s health. We know, for instance, that if she was to get liposuction that there’s .19 deaths for every 1,000 procedures. If you look for facelifts, it’s .2 per 1,000 procedures. For C-sections, 1.98 per 1,000, versus vaginal deliveries, which are .63 per 1,000.”

National Right to Life Communications Director Derrick Jones told Rewire that these statistics were taken from a 2010 study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Research.

Balch did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Currently at least ten states ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation, many of them based on a model law crafted by the National Right to Life. A few other state bans were signed into law but later struck down in court for violating federal policy that abortion must be legal until a fetus is viable outside the woman’s uterus. The National Right to Life Committee’s “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” claims that at 20 weeks, fetuses can feel pain—a disproven theory based on a few selected studies, which contradicts the medical consensus that a fetus’ nervous system is not developed enough to feel pain until the third trimester.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to review a case involving a challenge to Arizona’s 20-week abortion ban after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law.

That law, based on model legislation crafted by the anti-choice policy group Americans United for Life, was primarily based on the argument that later abortions carry medical risks to women.

Americans United for Life leaders have noted in the past that the Supreme Court is unlikely to strike down its own “viability standard,” a standard set down in Roe v. Wade, which says that abortion is legal until the point at which a fetus could survive outside the womb. Americans United for Life, therefore, believes that putting the focus on the mother’s health is a more effective legal and political strategy.

But in the Ninth Circuit decision, the court wrote that passing informed consent is the proper response to dealing with the risks of a medical procedure, not banning the procedure.

Balch referenced the Ninth Circuit decision as evidence that framing the debate around women’s health is ineffective.

For the strategists at the National Right to Life Committee, potential implications of 20-week abortion bans focused on the life of the unborn are not simply legislative (actually banning abortions at 20 weeks) or legal (dismantling the foundation of Roe v. Wade by striking down the viability standard) but political as well.

Looking ahead to this year’s mid-term elections, the organization is calling on anti-choice candidates to highlight their political opponents’ objections to 20-week bans as extreme and inhumane, and to steer clear of arguments about women’s health and safety.

“If we’re going to use legislation to frame the debate, do we frame it around an area and approach that is around the woman and her health, or do we frame the debate around the unborn child who can feel pain?” Balch said.

If Balch’s statements are any indication of emerging campaign rhetoric, it seems likely that her group will emphasize junk science—such as that of so-called fetal pain—and the emotive use of the word “baby” to refer to a fetus.

“I think as long as you keep the baby in the debate, we are fighting on our high ground,” Balch told the audience.

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