By Ian Gentles,
Dept. of History, Tyndale University College
Research Director, de Veber Institute of Bioethics
Could restricting access to abortion actually be the best way to reduce maternal and infant mortality?
Recently it came to light that as many as 500,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth each year, as well as 9 million children under the age of five. The Millennium Development Goals that Canada and most other countries signed onto in 2000 aim to reduce these numbers by three-quarters before 2015. Population control groups such as International Planned Parenthood and the World Health Organization take it as axiomatic that reducing or eliminating unintended pregnancies will automatically save the lives of untold numbers of women and infants.
Yet there is striking evidence from Poland and elsewhere that this is not so. In the past few years Poland has not only met, but surpassed its Millennium Development Goals. Since the fall of the communist regime in 1989 maternal mortality has plunged by more than 75 per cent, infant mortality is down by almost two-thirds, and the rate of premature births has dropped by well over a half. The reduction in premature births is important because premature children are prone to all sorts of medical and social afflictions. Perhaps the most serious of these is a much greater chance of being born with cerebral palsy than full-term babies. In the late 1980s around a hundred children a year were dying before the age of 5 from cerebral palsy in Poland. By 2006 the number was down to 5 or 10 a year — a greater than 90 per cent drop. In the U.S. by contrast, the preterm birthrate has jumped in recent years from 8.9 to 12.8 per cent of all births, pointing to a corresponding increase in the incidence of cerebral palsy. Canada’s experience has probably been similar, though no figures are available. A woman who has one or more abortions significantly increases her risk of subsequently bearing a pre-term baby, which in turn hugely increases the risk that that baby will be afflicted with cerebral palsy.
In addition to the unfathomable human tragedy that cerebral palsy represents there is the enormous financial burden of caring for people with the disease.
Why has Poland made such strides in improving both maternal and infant health? Certainly not by spending a lot of money on ‘reproductive health services’ – the code phrase for abortion. Poland is a poor country, much poorer than either Canada or its immediate European neighbours. The money simply isn’t there for any lavish program to improve maternal and infant health. The only change that could have produced such a dramatic improvement is the documented decline in the induced abortion rate. Since 1989 Poland has virtually banned induced abortion. According to official statistics the legal abortion rate has plummeted from well over 100,000 in the 1980s to a few hundred in the 1990s, and that very low rate has been maintained up to the present. There is little evidence of a widespread resort to illegal abortion, nor have significant numbers of Polish women gone to other countries seeking abortions.
Interestingly, the only other European country where abortion is illegal – Ireland – also boasts very low maternal mortality. By comparison, countries where abortion is completely legal – the U.S. and Poland’s immediate neighbours, Russia and Hungary, have much higher maternal and infant death rates. The same is true of Latin America. Guyana, which allows unrestricted abortion, has one of the worst records in the world when it comes to maternal and infant health. By contrast countries that have sharply reduced access to abortion over the past two decades, like Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador, have enjoyed steady improvement in maternal and infant health.
It is indisputable that Poland has met and exceeded its Millennium Development Goals for improving maternal and infant health. If the population control advocates really care about maternal and infant health maybe they should take a look at how Poland, Ireland, Chile, Nicaragua and El Salvador have achieved their astonishing success. If they do maybe they will start to wonder whether laying on more and more abortion really is the solution.
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