Roe v. Wade: 40 Years After


January 22, 2013, marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court Decision that declared unconstitutional state laws banning abortion prior to viability. Its companion case on the same date, Doe v. Bolton, allowed abortion after viability as well for “health” reasons, which it defined as “all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the wellbeing of the patient.”A brief, authorless article on the website of The Economist commemorated the date. In nine generally uninformative and vague sentences, the article tells the reader that the pro-life cause “duly lost” in Roe v. Wade, and attempts to imply that legal abortion is responsible for significantly safer abortions despite a drop in abortion-related maternal deaths prior to its liberalization.  It then takes a stab at state politicians who have not actively advocated for the removal of presently inactive abortion ban laws that are still on the books. It concludes by suggesting that the record number of abortion restrictions approved in state legislatures across the union in recent years is unwarranted and ineffective: “states have been piling extra regulations on abortion clinics in the past two years, with the aim of reducing an abortion rate that was falling already” (emphasis added). To solidify its succinct and somewhat veiled message, the article includes a graph summarizing the past 40 years of abortion numbers. The article made few references to specific data, so presumably it speaks for itself. What story does the graph tell? Let’s take a look:


The dull brown curve indicates a sudden rise around the time of abortion liberalization followed by an almost linear decline through the present day. The numbers appearing on the right, in brown, are in small denominations spanning from zero to thirty. The bright blue curve represents a visually striking decline. The numbers appearing on the left, in blue, are in larger denominations spanning from zero to two hundred. At first impression, it appears that a minor but temporary spike in abortions (brown curve) has been accompanied by a drastic and long-term reduction in abortion-related deaths (blue curve). In other words, a cursory interpretation would suggest that a foreseeable uptick in abortion numbers (from near zero to thirty and down to twenty) is correlated with an impressive improvement in abortion safety (from one hundred forty down to near zero).

This is misleading.

The graph compares apples to oranges: the numbers are presented on vastly different scales, distorting the shapes of the curves. While abortion-related deaths[1] are presented as an absolute number, the number of aborted children is presented as abortions per one thousand women between the ages of 15 and 44. There are hundreds of millions of women in this category, so the absolute number is vastly greater. A casual reader will not know this number, much less visualize it. To be fair, this way of presenting the data is found at the source from the Guttmacher Institute, which also neglects to show a graph with absolute numbers of abortions.

If we were to compare apples to apples, using the absolute number of abortions per year, the graph presented by The Economist would leave a much different impression on the average observer:


There seems to be only one data curve (in red), not two. The blue curve that appeared in the first chart as an obvious logarithmic decline is an imperceptible, constant, flat line hugging the bottom axis of this graph. In other words, it is too small to reflect any relevant change on the smallest possible major axis scale that the graphing software would permit in light of the enormous range of the abortion curve. The maximum value on the major axis (number of deaths) is 1.62 million or 1,620,000. The highest actual value of abortion-related maternal deaths, reported in 1965, is a mere 200. This does not minimize the great value and worth of each of those lives, but it puts things in proper perspective to note that a reduction by about 140 abortion-related maternal deaths per year since the liberalization of abortion laws (1970 and 1973) has been accompanied by an increase in the number of aborted children on the order of millions.

If a graph must speak for itself, it should do so accurately, keeping in mind the audience. In light of the new graph, there is hardly a need to debate the deceptive contention that legalizing abortion would make it not only safe but also “rare.” The true numbers conflate visual representations that seem contrived for emotional impact on casual readers.

Of course, lest any reader be led to believe this issue is just about numbers, perceptions, and emotions, we should recall that there is no number of lives saved or lost that is large or small enough to justify the taking of an innocent human life, which is exactly what abortion is. Suffice it to cite John Paul II’s encyclical letter Evangelium vitae, no. 72:

Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law . . . Laws which authorize and promote abortion and euthanasia are therefore radically opposed not only to the good of the individual but also to the common good; as such they are completely lacking in authentic juridical validity. Disregard for the right to life, precisely because it leads to the killing of the person whom society exists to serve, is what most directly conflicts with the possibility of achieving the common good. Consequently, a civil law authorizing abortion or euthanasia ceases by that very fact to be a true, morally binding civil law.

The 40th annual March for Life to protest the violent injustice of legalized abortion-on-demand was attended by record crowd of people of all ages, especially teens and young adults. The NCBC’s own Dr. Marie T. Hilliard was in attendance, and has shared her story as a Catholic registered nurse when she learned the news of the Supreme Court decision in 1973. We are all called to witness to the dignity of human life, to God’s love for all His children, especially the most vulnerable and voiceless, and to that most beautiful and unbreakable bond between mother and child.

The words of Mother Teresa in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize on December 11, 1979, aptly describe abortion as an unfathomable form of destructive warfare:

We are talking of peace. These are things that break peace, but I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing—direct murder by the mother herself. And we read in the Scripture, for God says very clearly: Even if a mother could forget her child—I will not forget you—I have carved you in the palm of my hand. We are carved in the palm of His hand, so close to Him that unborn child has been carved in the hand of God. And that is what strikes me most, the beginning of that sentence, that even if a mother could forget something impossible—but even if she could forget—I will not forget you. And today the greatest means—the greatest destroyer of peace is abortion. And we who are standing here—our parents wanted us. We would not be here if our parents would do that to us. Our children, we want them, we love them, but what of the millions.

We who are standing here must continue to work for the protection of the millions. God bless the efforts of all those working to defend human dignity—and the lives of so many innocents.


[1] The graph legend indicates that the blue curve represents “abortion-related deaths.” This actually refers to abortion-related maternal deaths, since the article refers to it as “the number of women dying from botched abortions.” Of course the reality is that children killed by abortion also fit the category of “abortion-related deaths.” But they are ignored.