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Fetal Position: The Political Fight Over the Health Risks of Abortion and Childbirth

The pairing of the data is conspicuous—in the developed world, few women make reproductive health decisions on the basis of possibility of death.

Abortion is safer than giving birth, according to a new study—but we already knew that. The study, published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, compiled existing data to find that women are 15 times more likely to die in childbirth than they are during an abortion. About 1 in 11,000 women die giving birth, compared to the 1 in 167,000 women who die while undergoing legal abortions.

The pairing of the data is conspicuous—in the developed world, both childbirth and legal abortions are relatively safe procedures, and few women make reproductive health decisions on the basis of remote possibility of death. In both abortion and childbirth, the risk of death generally only influences a woman's decision in extreme cases—when the life of the mother is endangered by a problem pregnancy, for example, or when a woman is forced to secure an unsafe abortion in a place where it is not legal or accessible. Big-picture numbers hardly come into play.

Women should have access to the best data available to inform their reproductive health decisions, whether they use it or not. But this study is more political move than it is public service. State legislators often cite abortion's health risks when lobbying to increase restrictions on the procedure—whether by over-regulating abortion facilities or considering fetuses people. Of course, these laws are really predicated on moral arguments, not scientific ones. If the scientific community establishes that their numbers are wrong, they will find new numbers.

Anti-abortion rights activists are already getting a head start. "Study Claiming Abortion Safer Than Birth Totally Misleading," one said. The study is biased, said another. Even mainstream outlets are capitulating to the political posturing over the hard data. The Huffington Post called the study "controversial." TIME's report begins: "Abortions are considered high-risk, but..."

The defensive framing of this study may be necessary to combat political claims that abortion is "high-risk." But it also helps to drum up a false dichotomy between women who choose to have abortions and those who choose to give birth. Reproductive choice is not a number's game—women choose based on a number of personal factors, of which risk of death is only one. And they do not always choose the same way. Most women who undergo abortions are mothers already.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user jessica.diamond

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