Analysis Abortion

Texas Solicitor General Still Wrong on Number of Complications From Abortion

Sharona Coutts

As with so many claims from anti-choice campaigners and advocates, this one doesn't hold up to scrutiny.

Read more of our coverage of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt here.

How many Texas women suffer complications as a result of abortions each year?

That question arose again Wednesday as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about a Texas law that, if allowed to take full effect, would shutter the majority of abortion clinics in that state, and leave millions of predominantly low-income women without access to safe, affordable abortion care.

In response to questioning from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller repeated a claim that has been trotted out since this litigation began, back in September 2013, just months after former Gov. Rick Perry signed the law.

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Keller claimed that 210 women are hospitalized in Texas each year due to complications from abortion.

As with so many claims from anti-choice campaigners and advocates, this one doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

That number was first provided by Planned Parenthood as an estimate derived by using the number of women who obtain abortions in Texas each year—roughly 70,000—divided by the known complication rate from abortions in the United States overall, an exceedingly low rate compared to other surgical procedures, of just 0.3 percent. Two hundred and ten is 0.3 percent of 70,000. In other words, that is a statistical estimate; it is not a report based on any actual injuries or complications.

That estimate, however, does not give the true picture of complications arising from abortion in Texas.

In the years since the Texas legislature passed HB 2, the number of abortions performed in the state has dropped. So even if the complication rate remained the same, the number of hospitalizations would be lower.

What’s more, the terms “hospitalization” and “complications” can give a misleading impression about the safety of abortion.

The Fifth Circuit Court made clear that not all women admitted to a hospital with “complications” would require specialist follow-up.

“Witnesses on both sides further testified that some of the women who are hospitalized after an abortion have complications that require an Ob/Gyn specialist’s treatment,” wrote Judge Edith Jones. (Emphasis added.)

That is almost certainly because the term “complication” can encompass a wide range of events, from excessive bleeding and cramping to more serious outcomes, all of which, again, are rare.

Anti-choice advocates have made a habit of making hysterical and often inaccurate claims about the rates of complications related to abortion, because that notion is central to their new strategy of framing abortion restrictions as protections for women’s health. In fact the clear weight of evidence shows that it is the restrictions themselves that put women at risk.

If there were any doubt that this number is being used for political purposes, then one need only consider that those who rely on it to stir panic, also rely on the testimony of a doctor—John Thorp—who has been so discredited that multiple courts have eviscerated his evidence, finding that Thorp “displayed a disturbing apathy toward the accuracy of his testimony.”

None of this fear-mongering alters the facts about abortion: It is among the safest, and most regulated, medical procedure in the United States.

Back in 2013, when two congressional inquiries embarked on a fishing expedition to find evidence that abortion harms women, they failed to do so.

Even Texas, when extended the invitation to demonstrate any wrongdoing by abortion providers in that state, found no evidence suggesting that abortion harms women.

As Rewire wrote at the time, “Far from indicating that women were at risk of being harmed when seeking abortions, the documents show that the state already had one of the nation’s most proactive and aggressive systems to police abortion services and ensure that facilities were complying with those rules.”

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