Accuracy in Media

The Washington Post Fact Checker awarded Planned Parenthood President Leana Wen the maximum four Pinocchios for repeatedly falsely claiming that thousands of women died each year before the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973.

This is what Wen said, according to the Post:

“We face a real situation where Roe could be overturned. And we know what will happen, which is that women will die. Thousands of women died every year pre-Roe.”

— Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood, in an interview with WFAA of Dallas, March 6, 2019

“Before Roe v. Wade, thousands of women died every year — and because of extreme attacks on safe, legal abortion care, this could happen again right here in America.”

— Wen, in a tweet, April 24, 2019

“We’re not going to go back in time to a time before Roe when thousands of women died every year because they didn’t have access to essential health care.”

— Wen, interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” May 22

But when the Post asked Planned Parenthood for evidence backing up Wen’s claim, they provided a statement by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that estimated that “as many as 5,000 annual deaths,” occurred before Roe but contained to citations to back up the number.

In addition to the ACOG statement, Planned Parenthood also sent the Post reports in which many of them referenced a study in 1936 by Frederick Taussig who made conflicting claims about the number of deaths from abortions.

The Post noted that since Taussig’s time that the advent of antibiotics such as penicillin along with improved medical procedures made abortion less risky and cited a 1948 paper by Christopher Tietze, who said that the number of deaths from abortions was rapidly declining because the above as well as improved contraceptive methods that reduced the number of pregnancies.

According to Tietze’s research, the oft-cited 5,000 abortion death figure was way off the mark.

“Some 30 years ago it was judged that such deaths might number 5,000 to 10,000 per year, but this rate, even if it was approximately correct at the time, cannot be anywhere near the true rate now,” Tietze and Sarah Lewit wrote in Scientific American magazine in 1969. “The total number of deaths from all causes among women of reproductive age in the U.S. is not more than about 50,000 per year. The National Center for Health Statistics listed 235 deaths from abortion in 1965. Total mortality from illegal abortions was undoubtedly larger than that figure, but in all likelihood it was under 1,000.”

The Fact Checker cited several more studies that cast doubt on the “thousands of women died” before Roe tripe stated by Wen.

 After evaluating all the facts the Post concluded that as a doctor Wen should know better than to rely on shoddy statistics and by doing so only hurts her cause.

Wen is a doctor, and the ACOG is made up of doctors. They should know better than to peddle statistics based on data that predates the advent of antibiotics. Even given the fuzzy nature of the data and estimates, there is no evidence that in the years immediately preceding the Supreme Court’s decision, thousands of women died every year in the United States from illegal abortions.

Wen’s repeated use of this number reminds us of the shoddy data used by human trafficking opponents. Unsafe abortion is certainly a serious issue, especially in countries with inadequate medical facilities. But advocates hurt their cause when they use figures that do not withstand scrutiny. These numbers were debunked in 1969 — 50 years ago — by a statistician celebrated by Planned Parenthood. There’s no reason to use them today.

Wen was named Planned Parenthood president in September 2018.

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