In the comments to an earlier post, “Alas” reader Joe M wrote:
[Description of four women's deaths following abortion.] These are four deaths that occurred in one small state that reported no abortion deaths for 1989. For that same year, the Abortion Surveillance Unit of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported only 12 deaths for the entire country. But, as we will see, the CDC doesn’t look very hard.
Question: If there were really only 12 deaths reported to the CDC for the entire country in 1989, what are the chances that this process is remotely accurate given that it missed 4 known cases in a single small state? On a nationwide basis, taking the real figures from one state leads to a 33% higher death rate.
If the same proportion of women were missed in the rest of the country, that would mean the CDC claimed there were only 12 deaths when there were actually over 200.
Joe’s link leads to “The Cover-Up: Why U.S. Abortion Mortality Statistics are Meaningless,” by David Reardon, an article that’s frequently cited by pro-life websites and publications. The four women who died of abortion-related complications were Erica Richardson, Gladys Estanislao, Debra Gray, and Susanne Logan (although Ms. Logan didn’t die until 1992, so it’s a bit odd of Joe to speculate about including her death in 1989 mortality statistics).
These deaths are tragic. But are they evidence of a current, nationwide pattern of the federal goverment (which runs the CDC) massively undercounting deaths caused by botched abortions, as Joe suggests?
There are some odd things about Reardon’s article. If such “hidden abortion deaths” form an ongoing pattern, then why include only decade-old examples (the article was published in 2000)? If “hidden abortion deaths” are a national problem, why use only examples from Maryland? And why – in an article that is fairly well footnoted – is there no footnote indicating where the information about Richardson, Estanislao, or Gray was found?
It turns out that Gray and Logan were both killed by the malpractice of the Hillview Abortion Clinic, run by a woman who pretended to be, but wasn’t, a doctor (source: 60 Minutes broadcast 4/21/91). An actual doctor who was associated with the Hillview clinic wound up losing his license to practice medicine over the Gray and Lofan cases (AP story, 12/19/91). It’s not every day that an abortion clinic is so flagrantly awful that it winds up on 60 Minutes; how Hillview was run doesn’t tell us anything about ordinary clinics that perform abortions. So two of the 1989 Maryland cases are exceptions, rather than typical examples of an ongoing national pattern.
It was harder to find information about Erica Richardson and Gladys Estanislao; a lexus search didn’t turn up any mention of their deaths in a legitimate news source. However, they and the other two women were mentioned in press release after press release issued by Father Paul Marx, head of the Population Research Institute (PRI).
Since I can’t locate any other pre-Reardon source of information about these cases – and since Reardon’s article doesn’t provide a single fact about these four deaths that wasn’t previously in Marx’s press releases – it seems likely that Reardon got his information from Marx. If so, I can see why Reardon would choose not to cite Paul Marx as a source. Marx’s PRI is probably best known for spearheading the smear campaign against the UN Population Fund; this campaign (and the unwillingness of mainstream pro-lifers to ever criticize one of their own, even an anti-Semitic liar like Marx) has probably killed thousands of third-world woman and infants and led to tens of thousands more abortions being performed.
Marx is also an anti-Semitic barker who believes that abortion is a Jewish conspiracy. In this day and age, I usually take accusations of anti-Semitism with a grain of salt. It’s become a too-common tactic to unfairly accuse political opponents of anti-Semitism, based on indirect evidence rather than on anything they’ve said. So here’s a few actual quotes from Paul Marx, and you can decide for yourself if he’s got an unhealthy obsession with Jews. (Source: U.S. Newswire, 10/30/98).
Even folks in the Catholic Church have criticized Marx’s anti-Semitism; one Bishop said, of one of Marx’s newsletters, “It evokes, I think, the medieval imagery of Jews as devils, complete with horns. Such anti-Semitic imagery has been clearly condemned by the church.” (ADL press release, 3/10/95).
So what, you may ask? Just because Marx is a Jew-hater who propagated vicious lies about the UN Population Fund, that doesn’t prove he’s lying about Erica Richardson and Gladys Estanislao’s death. Personally, I think Marx isn’t a very credible source. However, even if we take Marx at his word, that doesn’t provide much support for Reardon’s case. Marx’s press releases make it clear that he’s accusing the Maryland government of outstanding corruption and incompetence; his press releases don’t claim, or support the claim, that Maryland in 1989 represents an ongoing national norm of unreported abortion deaths.
So what are Reardon’s sources? Two deaths from a single astoundingly corrupt clinic; and two more deaths reported on only by nutcase/liar Paul Marx, who uses these four deaths to argue that the local government is corrupt. To take these cases and assume they represent a norm in unreported abortion deaths nationwide seems unwarranted.
If this is the norm, then why aren’t there any examples that aren’t a decade or more old; or that aren’t from a single tragic year in Maryland? Unless Reardon can present a few recent cases from a variety of states, it seems likely that Maryland in 1989 was a statistical exception, not the statistical norm. If pro-lifers want to prove that the CDC systematically undercounts abortion deaths, they’ll have to do much better than this.
Reardon does mention one other source: a book called Victims of Choice, self-published by Kevin Sherlock. I have no idea how reliable Sherlock’s reporting is. However, that he also wrote The Abortion Buster’s Manual – a how-to guide to harassing abortion providers, which often stops a gnat’s wing away from calling for violence against abortion doctors – lessens his credibility as an objective reporter. Here’s a sample from Sherlock’s writing (capitalization is his):
Exposing and damaging the abortionist is more important than your ego. In fact, imagine yourself as a guerilla warrior who uses cunning and iron discipline to attack the enemy while he isn’t looking, and then steals away before the enemy can fight back. Not only will this mindset make your digging more interesting, but it will also keep you on your toes when you are searching records, or spying on the abortionist…
Not exactly 60 Minutes, is it?
If the CDC is systematically undercounting abortion deaths, I’d expect there to be some more objective and reasonable source criticizing them for it. Furthermore, if the CDC is really so biased (Kevin Sherlock suggests that there’s a pro-choice conspiracy to underreport among CDC employees), why didn’t the Reagan administration or either Bush administration – none of whom could be accused of being pro-choice – act to solve the problem? (The CDC operates under the authority of the White House).
Nothing I’ve written here proves that the CDC isn’t undercounting abortion deaths by a huge degree – but then, it’s impossible to prove a negative. All I can say is that Reardon’s evidence against the CDC isn’t very persuasive. If Reardon’s article is the best case pro-lifers can make against the CDC, then probably the CDC’s doing a reasonably good job.