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Friday, May 14, 2004 - Page updated at 05:31 P.M.

Ellen Goodman / Syndicated columnist
Ellen Goodman: Facts and schmacks in the abortion wars


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BOSTON — Let me begin with a line from that famous social commentator, Homer Simpson: "Facts are meaningless; you can use facts to prove anything that's even remotely true! Facts, schmacks."

Homer first uttered that creed in 1997, but his quirky skepticism about the schmacks of facts is now the norm. The country is polarized over so many issues that we not only assume there are red and blue states, and red and blue politics, we also assume there are red and blue facts.

I bring this up because of a recent column I wrote on the March for Women's Lives. I referred to the bad old days when 10,000 women a year died of illegal abortions. Ka-boom. The number — 10,000 deaths — produced a mother lode of e-mails insisting that it was either a lie or propaganda or an "urban legend." Many said that this figure came from Dr. Bernard Nathanson, formerly pro-choice and now pro-life, who has claimed responsibility for the bunk which he now debunks.

Well, as someone who is both pro-choice and pro-facts, I went back into the deep, dark numeric archives with guide Stanley Henshaw who, poor soul, is actually writing a paper on all this for the Guttmacher Institute.

I will spare you the details, but the 10,000 figure did not come from Dr. Nathanson, it came from Dr. Frederick Taussig, circa 1936. In 1930, abortion was the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women. But "official" wasn't the whole story. Though data was admittedly skimpy by today's standards, Taussig's research estimated 8,000 to 10,000 deaths.

Over the decades, the numbers shrank to hundreds and then dozens because of penicillin, because doctors began performing abortions and because abortion became legal in critical states such as New York. By 1972, the year before the Roe v. Wade decision, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 39 women died from illegal or self-induced abortions.

So, facts and schmacks. How many women actually died, dear readers? In the bad, bad, bad old days of the 1920s and '30s, we can estimate 5,000, 7,000, 10,000 or wait for Henshaw's paper to be published. In the merely bad old days of 1972, at least 39 died. By the way, according to the World Health Organization, 70,000 women a year die in the countries where the bad old days are right now.

I don't expect this to end the argument or change the minds of my correspondents. We are talking about facts and schmacks. Indeed, the original column was about a march that produced a numerical duel of its own. Informally, the D.C. police said there were at least 800,000 on the Mall. The organizers estimated 1.15 million. The Washington Times' coverage described "thousands" of marchers while The New York Times described "hundreds of thousands."

In the endless abortion controversy, neither side has been completely immune from misinformation and disinformation. Early in the debate over the so-called partial-birth abortion ban, a pro-choice spokesman had to admit that he "lied through my teeth" about the number of and the reasons for dilation and evacuation abortions.

On the other side, research linking breast cancer to abortion keeps reappearing no matter how many scientists drive a stake through its heart. It has finally been expunged from the government cancer Web site but it appears on virtually every pro-life site, including one called, without any irony, abortionfacts.com.

This all brings me, fact by schmack, to the current uproar over Plan B, the emergency contraceptive. Plan B, as the name implies, is what you do when Plan A fails. It's the second chance to avoid pregnancy.

After a long haul, the FDA's panel of experts voted 23-4 that it was safe and effective enough to sell over the counter. That was after reviewing 40 studies and 15,000 pages of data. But data, schmata. Last week, the FDA's Steven Galson overruled the panel and blocked Plan B from being sold without a prescription. The manufacturer, he said, hadn't proved that girls younger than 16 could use it without medical guidance.

The only number on his side was the number of conservatives who believe that teens who get access to the morning-after pill would increase their night-before sex. There is no evidence of this in other countries like, say, France. But, evidence, schmevidence.

Our country still has 3 million unintended pregnancies a year. Half of them end in abortions. In the battle of the facts, this is a slim and important piece of common ground. In the struggle over numbers, pro-life and pro-choice, red and blue, should at least agree on the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

For the moment, however, the plan for Plan B schmacks of politics.

Ellen Goodman's column appears Friday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com

Copyright 2004, Washington Post Writers Group

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