The XX Factor

Mitt Romney and Illegal Abortion

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Justin Elliott’s reporting at Salon on the sad story of Mitt Romney’s relative who died from a septic abortion in 1963 is certainly interesting for the insight it gives us into Romney’s family and his political history, but honestly, it’s even more valuable as a reminder of the realities of illegal abortion. Indeed, for much of the world, this is still the reality; for countries where abortion is illegal, septic abortion remains the number one cause of maternal mortality. As Elliott notes, it’s estimated that 5,000 women a year died from illegal abortion in the U.S. in the years prior to Roe v. Wade, though the details from the story about Romney’s relative, Ann Keenan, demonstrate why it’s so hard to track such deaths. The families and communities are understandably eager to cover it up.

In the many years I’ve been dealing with reproductive health as an issue, I’ve found that the preferred method of the anti-choice movement to deal with these brutal realities is to simply deny them by exploiting the bad statistics-keeping of the 20th century. (Or, in many cases, just by making stuff up.) They do this while still exploiting the pre-Roe stereotype of abortion providers as butchers and perverts, convincing themselves that actually, it was the legalization of abortion that somehow caused the dangers of abortion. In reality, while there were back-alley butchers pre-Roe, most providers before and after the decision put the patients’ well-being first. Most septic abortions seem to be from attempts to self-induce. If abortion was made illegal again, it might be even more dangerous for women than it was in the ‘60s, because we won’t have the network of safe abortion providers working underground for women to go to, and so we may see even more women turn to coathangers and douching with bleach in desperation.

As for Romney, well, most politicians have to take public stands that conflict with what they know to be true, morallly speaking, from their own experience. It’s just part of building a coalition that will elect you, and why politicians have such poor reputations. Still, rarely do we see the conflict laid out so starkly. To get the Republican nomination, Romney has to pander to people who deny that people like his relative Ann Keenan really did die the way they died. Most politicians aren’t put in a position of having to shrug off a family member like that, and it’s admittedly kind of nauseating.