A practical matter

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion with Roe v. Wade 35 years ago this Jan. 22, the decision has been one of the most controversial in the court’s history. That’s understandable, given that to opponents it’s a life-and-death issue.

As the court understood and history has shown, however, most Americans believe safe and legal abortion should be available to women. They may disagree somewhat on how available abortion should be, but generally speaking they support it. As a practical matter, they know, women who want abortions will obtain them, whether they’re legal or not.

This has been borne out by a comprehensive global study of abortion completed last fall by the World Health Organization. It concludes that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not. Outlawing the procedure, in other words, doesn’t deter women from seeking it.

The study also found, as might have been expected, that abortion was safe in countries where it was legal but dangerous in countries where it was outlawed and performed clandestinely. And countries that legalize abortion show dramatic decreases in mortality among women who had abortions—for instance, 90 percent in South Africa, which legalized the procedure in 1996.

In addition, the study found that, in countries where contraception has become more available, abortion rates have dropped significantly.

Some of the candidates running for president this year oppose abortion and presumably would endeavor to overturn Roe v. Wade. As the study shows, outlawing abortion wouldn’t stop women from seeking the procedure. It would just mean that a lot of them would die in the process.