The XX Factor

The Death of Tonya Reaves Is Not an Argument for Banning Abortion

Anti-choice protestors make their case.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Abortion is one of the safest medical procedures performed regularly in this country, especially if you’re lucky enough to be able to get one early instead of being slowed down by lack of access and legal obstacles. Unfortunately, small risk doesn’t mean no risk: Tonya Reaves, a 24-year-old Chicago woman, died last week after hemorrhaging during a second-trimester abortion. She was rushed from a Planned Parenthood to the hospital as soon as things went wrong, but they were unable to save her.

Reaves’ death is incredibly sad, and it stands out in no small part because abortion-related deaths in this country are so rare. But despite that the alternative to abortion—childbirth—is 14 times more dangerous than abortion, anti-choicers are seizing on the Reaves case to issue the usual demands that legal abortion be banned and that Planned Parenthood lose its funding for contraception services. The whole thing might seem strange to people not entirely familiar with the weird fantasyland of the anti-choice movement. If they believe that abortion is murder, it doesn’t make sense for them to make martyrs of women who, in their own framing, are murderers. But in this instance at least, the argument of anti-choicers is that women are victims of abortion providers and can’t be held responsible. (If you start from the assumption that motivates the anti-choice movement—that women aren’t intelligent enough to make their own choices—this makes a lot more sense.)

The preening claim of anti-choicers using Reaves’ death to score points is that they’re in this to protect women. To evaluate this claim, it helps to imagine if we applied their approach to another huge cause of pregnancy-related death, the one I mentioned above: childbirth. If activists trying to reduce stillbirths were to take the anti-choice approach to abortion, this is how they’d go about it: First, they’d demand an end to childbirth, on the grounds that without childbirth, you don’t have childbirth-related deaths. Then they would blame doctors and midwives—who offer safe, clean childbirth care—for maternal mortality and demand that the government immediately jail anyone caught assisting women in childbirth. They would push the government to defund any pregnancy prevention programs on the grounds that gynecologists who prescribe birth control have the ability to deliver babies and therefore are dangerous characters that need to be put out of business.

Of course, what would happen immediately upon the implementation of their policies is that childbirth death rates would go up. (Well, as long as they weren’t successful in putting an end to childbirth altogether—stay with me.) Desperate women would hire untrained black-market childbirth assistants who work in unsterilized places, leading to many deaths. Many other women would, unable to find these black-market people, just try to give birth unassisted at home, leading to their deaths and the deaths of their children. Faced with these numbers, the activists who wanted to ban childbirth assistance would retort by saying, “See? Childbirth is dangerous. You shouldn’t do it,” while insisting that abstinence is the only way to end maternal mortality. We’d begin to wonder if perhaps they were less interested in keeping women safe and more interested in punishing women for having sex in the first place. 

It sounds ridiculous, but that’s exactly how the war on legal abortion is playing out. There are plenty of things you can ban, from fen-phen to assault rifles, and you’ll see usage decline, so banning abortion initially seems like it would work to stop abortion. But the statistics show that abortion bans are actually counterproductive, as abortion rates are higher in countries where the procedure is banned. More importantly, the least effective way possible to reduce abortion death rates is to criminalize abortion and restrict access to contraception. Most of the 47,000 women around the world who’ve died from abortion-related complications live in places where abortion is illegal or highly restricted and contraception is hard to get. Reaves, sadly, is the exception. If you really care about people dying from abortion, you don’t bust your ass to make sure it happens more often.