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Comparative Safety - Abortion & Stuff Folks Get Riled About

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Many abortion advocates pooh-pooh the idea that there are any risks to abortion surgery. Phrases like, "It's safer than a shot of penicillin," or "It's safer than getting your tonsils out" fly around.

How does abortion really compare to things we consider risky?

The Centers for Disease Control claim a death rate of 1.1 deaths per 100,000 induced abortions. I would dispute that, because I don't think the CDC makes more than a cursory attempt to identify abortion deaths. Nevertheless, it's the only number we have, so we have to use it.

First, I'll compare the risk of abortion to another personal, gynecological risk: Toxic Shock Syndrome caused by tampon use. Women of my generation still remember the huge scare over TSS, and the ensuing requirements that tampon manufacturers provide uniform absorbancies and health information about TSS to potential tampon users. And what is the risk of TSS? TSS is seen in one per 100,000 menstruating women. The mortality rate for TSS is roughly three percent. So the risk of death from TSS associated with tampon use is .03 deaths per 100,000. This is considered significant enough to alert women to the risks of tampon-associated TSS, and significant enough to warrant policing of the feminine tampon industry. But a woman is more likely to die from an abortion than she is to get TSS from using a tampon -- and even if she gets TSS, she has a 97% chance of survival.

Okay, the risk of TSS was higher in 1979, when the use of new materials by some tampon manufacturers led to an epidemic. The number of TSS cases at the peak of the epidemic was perhaps 12 per 100,000 menstruating women. That's still .36 deaths per 100,000 menstruating women, or about 1/3 the risk of death from abortion. This risk was still much smaller than the risk from abortion, but rightly considered enough of a risk to alert women and hold tampon manufacturers accountable.

Most people don't consider using tampons to be flirting with death. But still, women's lives are considered important enough to inform them of the risks, and to take measures to reduce the risks. What about riskier gambits?

How about fireworks? Every summer, we're bombarded with warnings to leave fireworks use to the professionals, lest we blast ourselves to bits. Still, professionals set up fireworks shows, and in many states it is legal to purchase fireworks. And, as folks are fond of pointing out when it comes to abortion, not everybody obeys the law. Some people will find a way to get fireworks illegally. (My brother did, and ended up with a broken arm and third-degree burns, so don't think I'm taking fireworks danger lightly.)

Activity Risk of Death
Abortion 1.1/100,000
Tampons 0.03/100,000
Fireworks negligible
Amusement ride 0.00013/100,000

So how risky is playing with fireworks? The American Pyrotechnics Association, which monitors fireworks injuries, tallies the risk in terms of injuries per 100,000 pounds of pyrotechnic materials. Fireworks-Related Injury Rates, 1976-2005, shows that in 2005 there were 3.8 injuries per 100,000 pounds of fireworks. I contacted the National Council on Fireworks Safety for statistics on fireworks mortality, and was told, "Because fireworks fatalities are so rare and when they do occur they are generally due to illegal explosives and not fireworks, we do not have such a figure." Our high awareness of fireworks injuries is largely due to the large amount of fireworks used - over 250 million pounds a year in the United States -- and the spectacular and highly public nature of such incidents. Mortality is negligible in proportion, no doubt due to safety-consciousness and protective laws and regulations. In other words, warning people about the dangers of fireworks, and failing to warn people about the dangers of abortion, have led to a world in which playing with fireworks is safer than getting an abortion.

Another cause for alarm is amusement park rides. Consumer groups are lobbying for more stringent state controls of amusement rides, as well as for federal oversight of amusement rides. And how dangerous are these rides? According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) the odds that you'll be seriously injured on an amusement ride (requiring at least an overnight hospital stay) are about one in nine million rides -- and the odds against a fatal injury one in 750 million.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that we shouldn't take steps to ensure that people are safe. Carnival rides should be inspected, fireworks should be regulated, and tampon users should be warned of the risks of Toxic Shock Syndrome. We can't take responsibility for our own safety if we're not warned. But what I do want people to consider is how much the cavalier attitude toward abortion risks is leading to unnecessary trauma and death.

I listened to a tape of a National Abortion Federation meeting in which nurses vented their frustration over their futile attempts to get abortion patients to take aftercare seriously. These nurses could not convince patients of the importance of reporting symptoms and seeking prompt care. As a result, relatively minor complications became life-threatening.

If the National Abortion Federation nurses want to know why women won't take abortion risks seriously, they need to look in the mirror. Efforts by NAF and other abortion-advocacy organizations to present abortion as virtually risk-free have been effective. They've been far too effective, to the point where no amount of scolding by a nurse is able to overcome a lifetime of bland assurances that abortion is perfectly safe.

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