A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Life of the Mother

Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh falsely claimed that there wasn’t “one instance” where an abortion would be necessary to save the mother’s life. But the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that more than 600 women die each year due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth, and more would die if they didn’t have access to abortion. After that, Walsh quickly backed down.

Walsh made his controversial comments after an Oct. 18 debate with Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth. Walsh said that with “modern technology and science,” there wasn’t “one instance” where an abortion would be necessary to save the mother’s life. When a reporter asked him to clarify that he was saying it was never medically necessary to perform an abortion to save the life of the mother, Walsh replied, “Absolutely.”

The ACOG issued a statement the next day in response to Walsh’s comments:

ACOG, Oct. 19: Contrary to the inaccurate statements made yesterday by Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), abortions are necessary in a number of circumstances to save the life of a woman or to preserve her health. Unfortunately, pregnancy is not a risk-free life event, particularly for many women with chronic medical conditions. Despite all of our medical advances, more than 600 women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related reasons right here in the US. In fact, many more women would die each year if they did not have access to abortion to protect their health or to save their lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System reported a higher number for pregnancy-related deaths for 2006-2007, the most recent statistics. It found that 1,294 deaths that occurred within a year of pregnancy termination were pregnancy-related. Why did these women die? There were several causes, including cardiovascular disease, hemorrhage, hypertension, infections and embolisms. A small percentage — 0.6 percent — died from complications related to anesthesia. And 5.6 percent died from unknown causes. That doesn’t mean that an abortion would have saved the life of the mother in those cases, but it does indicate that “modern technology and science” have not made it so women no longer risk death from pregnancy.

The day after Walsh’s post-debate comments, he told reporters: “I do of course support medical procedures for women during their pregnancies that might result in the loss of an unborn child.”

Chicago’s CBS 2 TV reported that ectopic pregnancies, where the fetus develops outside the uterus, affect 64,000 women a year, a figure that comes from the American Pregnancy Association. The National Institutes of Health says that ectopic pregnancies are “life-threatening” and that the pregnancy “cannot continue to birth.” The fetus also cannot survive.

The Guttmacher Institute, a reproduction research center, did not have statistics on abortions performed to save the life of the mother. A dated 1998 study — published by the International Family Planning Perspectives journal — reported that a 1987-1988 survey found that 2.8 percent of 1,773 women who had had an abortion that year said the reason for the abortion was risk to maternal health.

— Lori Robertson