New UN Report Admits Data Faulty on Claims of Women Dying in Illegal Abortions

International   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 30, 2010   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

New UN Report Admits Data Faulty on Claims of Women Dying in Illegal Abortions

by Susan Yoshihara
September 30, 2010 Note: Susan Yoshihara writes for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute. This article originally appeared in the pro-life group’s Friday Fax publication and is used with permission.

New York, NY ( — A UN report has rankled experts for promoting abortion while also obscuring its research methods.

The new maternal health report endorses a UN strategy that recommends “safe” abortion services and family planning alongside antenatal care and skilled attendants at birth. That strategy was based on previous UN reports that said 536,000 women died yearly from pregnancy-related causes, 78,000 from illegal abortion. The new report slashes the total to 358,000 and did not offer any data regarding abortion.

“This is specious,” Duke University’s Dr. Monique Chireau said. “There were no data collected on deaths from abortion. We can’t even get good data on maternal deaths.”

The report says that only 63 of 173 countries studied had complete records on a cause of death. Twenty-four had no records at all.

Critics say the UN issued the report because of a recent independent study that showed previous UN data suspect and its research methods flawed. That independent study found that better education, economics, and healthcare, along with lower fertility rates, led to better maternal health. It did not mention abortion or family planning.

At a conference in June, International Planned Parenthood’s Sharon Camp asked one of the authors of the independent study if abortion and family planning contributed to lower maternal deaths. The author, Dr. Christopher Murray, replied that it would be hard to find evidence to support that belief.

While the most recent UN report found the same lower number of maternal deaths as the independent study, its research methods remain murky. While the UN report includes a comparison of study methods, Chireau said it leaves readers more confused about the UN’s approach. “They talk about process. What process? Where are the additional data sets?”

A former UN reproductive health official said promoting abortion services stems from a belief by most UN staff that legalizing abortion makes it safer and does not increase its incidence. Dr. Guiseppe Benagiano, formerly of the World Health Organization, acknowledged that abortion rates have increased after legalization in a number of countries.

Complete data is available for countries where abortion is illegal and maternal deaths low, such as Chile, Ireland, Malta, and Poland. Pro-life analysts say the research links tighter abortion laws with better maternal health. The new UN report, meanwhile, shows maternal deaths are higher than previously estimated in India, where abortion is legal and widespread.

Sixty-five percent of all maternal deaths occur in 11 countries, including India, according to the report. Three states with the highest rates of maternal death rates are torn by war or suffer from failed governments.

While it does not offer an evidentiary link, the new UN report says that higher contraceptive prevalence “may have contributed to improved outcomes.” Chireau called that misleading because a decrease in HIVAIDS-related deaths is a big factor behind lower maternal deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.

The UN report puts HIVAIDS-related maternal deaths at 21,000, one-third the number found by the independent researchers. It acknowledges that the figure was “difficult to estimate directly from available study data.”


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