Growing up in the Bible Belt in the 1990s, abortion was one of the most frequently cited symptoms of America’s “moral decline” from the pulpit. Sometimes likened to child sacrifices made to the pagan deity Moloch (and the Holocaust), abortion was depicted not only as the epitome of America’s wickedness but also proof of demonic influence in the Democrat Party.
No matter what other issues were on the ballot, it was simply indefensible to throw your support behind a pro-choice candidate. Period.
So, while I might have entertained the notion of voting third-party or not voting at all, the thought of voting for a candidate with a Pro-Choice political platform was completely off the table.
Abortion was, for lack of a better term, the ultimate Evangelical “trump card.” And I wasn’t unique. Within my conservative Evangelical sphere, no single issue dominated the political conversation more than that of abortion — so much so that I’m absolutely baffled liberal political strategists haven’t figured out how central this issue is for conservative voters.
But, as with other stances on hot-button issues hardwired into my adolescent worldview, the more I was exposed to issues and opinions that existed outside of my tiny East Texas hometown, the more my views on abortion shifted, evolved, and became a bit more even-handed. And, perhaps most importantly per this blog post, it no longer became the litmus test by which I evaluated a political candidate.
I should be upfront, and I say I still consider myself Pro-Life. It’s hard for me to view a developing fetus within a woman’s womb as anything less than a living being. If a pregnant woman told me she was considering an abortion and asked for my advice, I’d do my empathetic best to advise against it.
The far-reaching implications of abortion trouble me greatly. For example, approximately 7 out of 10 children who test positive for Down Syndrome in the womb are aborted in the United States (other countries — like Iceland and Denmark — have made headlines recently for “basically eradicating” Down Syndrome from their population — a downright chilling claim). And, in places like China and India, sex-selective abortions have stopped the birth of more than 23 million girls.
Furthermore, with all the crazy stuff science has revealed to us about fetal development, I don’t find many of the logical arguments for abortion intellectually compelling or morally consistent. And, while I can’t tell you if life begins at conception, implantation, or another stage of pregnancy, I do believe something sacred occurs during pregnancy that transcends mere biological function.
However, despite these Pro-Life convictions, I believe the best approaches to curbing abortions might not necessarily be the banning of abortions outright.
Abortion in America (or, It’s Complicated)
Before I explain my reasoning, I probably need to set the stage a bit.
Partisan views on abortion have held steady for that past decade, with roughly 46% of Americans identifying as pro-life and 48% of Americans identifying as Pro-Choice (Gallup). At the same time, 44% of Americans view abortion as “morally acceptable” compared to 47% who view it as “morally unacceptable.”
(At this point, you should already recognize how the “Do You Support Abortion? Yes/No/Maybe” polling strategy isn’t the best way to discern America’s complicated relationship with abortion).
Of course, Americans’ views on abortion are generally far more nuanced than the extremist strawman punching bags derided by conservative and progressive media outlets — 50% of Americans believe abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances,” 29% believe it should be legal “under any circumstance,” and 20% believe it should be “illegal in all circumstances” (Gallup).
While only 0.5% of Americans claim abortion as the “most important problem” (Gallup) in America in 2020, 40% of Americans said that abortion was “a top issue” (Pew Research) for them in the 2020 Election.
In a Gallup poll from summer 2020, 30% of Pro-Life voters said they would only vote for a political candidate if that candidate shared their Pro-Life (anti-abortion) ethic. (In contrast, abortion is a “threshold issue” for only 19% of voters who identify as Pro-Choice).
Two-thirds of abortions occur within 8 weeks of pregnancy, and 88% occur within the first twelve weeks. Less than 1.3% of abortion occur after 21 weeks (often for safety concerns of the mother). Medicated (non-surgical) abortions account for nearly 40% of abortions.
In the midst of all of these head-spinning statistics, it’s important to note that the abortion rate (per 1,000 women aged 15–44) in America has been on a steady decline for decades. In fact, it’s quite possible the current abortion rate is at its lowest point in American history.
I firmly believe most people on either side of this issue want to see the abortion rate continue to decline in the United States. And this isn’t just a naive assumption, it’s based on real research.
In a “comprehensive interview study of abortion attitudes in the United States” conducted in 2020 by the University of Notre Dame, the researchers conclude:
“None of the Americans we interviewed talked about abortion as a desirable good. Views range in terms of abortion’s preferred availability, justification or need, but Americans do not uphold abortion as a happy event or something they want more of.”
Therefore, let’s establish some common ground: If you’re reading this, you — like me — probably want to see fewer abortions in the United States.
Also, to my conservative readers, before you blow up my comment section, I want to challenge you to adopt a higher-level of critical thinking and empathy than is typically afforded to this conversation in traditional Evangelical circles. Addressing the socioeconomic rationale for abortion is not the equivalent of morally justifying abortion.
And, to my progressive readers, I’m aware of the intersectionality optics at play here. No one is begging for a “hot take” on women’s reproductive rights from another white male in America. And, as a man whose sole contribution to the reproductive process is literally having an orgasm, legislating what a woman can and can’t do with her body doesn’t (and shouldn’t) fall within my jurisdiction. However, I’m attempting to leverage my privilege, platform, and influence in an effort to encourage a more compassionate (and holistic) pro-life ethic.
The Hypocritical Irony of Pro-Family America
Before we talk about why I think the abortion rate is declining in the United States, we need to discuss who gets abortions in America and some of the factors that may contribute to that decision.
Growing up, the image painted for me was that of an affluent, selfish, and immoral woman who wanted to indulge in a hedonistic lifestyle without consequence. However, the available data — though incomplete — presents a very different portrait than that harmful (and offensive) stereotype.
- Approximately 1 in 4 women in the U.S. will have an abortion by age 45.
- 75% of abortion patients are low-income individuals, with 49% living below the poverty line.
- 59% of abortions are obtained by women who already have at least one child (one-third of who had two or more children).
- 39% of abortion patients are white, 28% are Black, and 25% are Hispanic — statistics widely out-of-sync with overall demographic representation in the U.S. population.
- 24% of abortion patients identified as Catholic, 17% as Mainline Protestant, and 13% as Evangelical Protestant, while 38% of abortion patients reported no religious affiliation.
- In a 2004 study, 74% of women who received an abortion said they “couldn’t afford a baby.”
As Maria Baer writes in her article for The Gospel Coalition,
“Most women seeking abortions aren’t uber-political. They aren’t members of the aggressively pro-abortion, Twitter-argument-waging, shout-your-abortion crowd. They aren’t calculating murderers. They’re afraid.”
This is a point I really want to stress. For most of my life, the conversation around abortion focused almost exclusively on the plight of the unborn (“Be a voice for the voiceless!”), and I was rarely encouraged to consider the plight of women who feel as if abortion is their only way out.
Every year, the cost of childbirth and childrearing in America becomes more expensive. Just between 2000 and 2010, the cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 increased by 40%. Approximately 78% of Americans live paycheck-to-check. Nearly 70% of Americans have less than $1,000 stashed away in savings.
(If you want to chalk all of this up to financial irresponsibility keep in mind that while inflation and costs of living — rent, healthcare, groceries, etc — have soared, wages have remained relatively stagnant for decades).
The average out-of-pocket cost of childbirth in America (with insurance) is $4,569— a number that doesn’t include the monthly deductible. Without insurance? $10,808. And those costs are for childbirth only; They don’t account for specialist appointments, prenatal care, hospital stays, or post-op checkups.
It’s no fluke that abortion rates are higher in minority communities. The financial burdens of pregnancy and healthcare fall hardest on minority populations in the United States. (Health outcomes vary, as well. For example, a Black woman in the U.S. is 2–6 times more likely to die from complications related to pregnancy than a white woman, and infant mortality rates among black infants in America are twice that of white infants).
Among wealthy developed nations, America is unique in its disregard for expectant/new mothers. In a searing Commonwealth Fund Study released in 2018, researchers found that in comparison to eleven wealthy nations:
- America has the highest maternal death rate (and that rate is increasing).
- 38% of women in the U.S. skip needed medical care because of cost (compared to 5% of women in the U.K.)
- 44% of American women report medical bill problems (compared to 2% in the U.K.).
- Fewer than 1/4 of American women rate their quality of care as “Exceptional” or “Very Good” (compared to 62% in the U.K.).
- In general, American women spend more for worse healthcare than women in other developed nations.
In my state, the average cost of childcare for a 4-year-old is $1,032 per month. That’s 60.6% more per year than in-state tuition for a four-year public college. (Visit the Economic Policy Institute to see how expensive childcare is in your state).
But, considering that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for families to survive on a single income, most women feel financial pressure to quickly return to work after giving birth. Once again, it doesn’t have to be this way.
The U.S. is one of the only countries on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. In addition to offering stipends and vouchers for childcare, some European nations offer months of paid (or partially-paid) maternity and paternity leave.
In The Nordic Theory of Everything, journalist Anu Partanen writes,
“Americans often view maternity leave as a time for a mother to recover from giving birth, and anything longer as an entitlement that unfairly gives women benefits that men and their childless colleagues don’t get. Nordic societies see this question differently. For starters, in the Nordic view, long leaves for both parents are seen as crucial to allow the child to form strong bonds with both the mother and the father.”
How’s that for pro-family public policy?
In sharp contrast, only 40% of U.S. employers offer paid maternity leave, with an average of 4.1 paid weeks off. And if you believe America couldn’t afford to implement any of these quality-of-life improvements, consider the fact that America spends $732 billion on militarism and war – more than the next ten countries combined. Those are your tax dollars at work, while less than a fraction of that is allocated toward healthcare, housing, and education.
We’ve been so conditioned to think such healthcare and childcare policies are “extreme,” that we fail to realize that we’re the extreme (and unsympathetic) ones in comparison to the developed world.
It should come as no surprise that the abortion rate in the United States is higher than the abortion rates of countries in Western, Southern and Northern Europe, and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, etc) — despite many of those nations having similar abortion policies as that of the United States.
What about adoption? you might be thinking. Isn’t that a preferred alternative for abortion?
In a perfect world, yes, placing a child for adoption is a wonderful (and beautiful) alternative to abortion. But the reality is, once again, a bit more complicated.
Studies show that women seeking abortions rarely seriously consider adoption — even when made aware of it as a viable option. Adoption rates at pro-choice clinics and pro-life pregnancy crisis centers hover at 1%. The U.S. adoption rate is at its lowest point in decades, and the U.S. foster care system is severely understaffed and overburdened with more than 400,000 kids moving in and out of the system.
Once again, I’m not trying to morally justify abortion. I’m attempting to illustrate how socioeconomic factors outside of someone’s control may push someone to abort a child they would’ve otherwise kept. It’s much easier to throw stones and judge other people’s choices when you confuse moral high ground with socioeconomic privilege.
Nobody Puts Baby in the Corner
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking to yourself, “Shouldn’t all this income inequality, racial disparity, rising childcare costs, and shifting cultural norms lead to an increase in the abortion rate? Like, if all this stuff matters as much as you claim, why are abortion rates declining?”
Is the abortion rate declining because America is experiencing an Evangelical moral awakening and becoming more Christian? Not likely. In fact, the abortion rate is declining at the same time Americans are becoming less Christian. Or, could it be because some states have rolled out more restrictive abortion measures? Again, the data doesn’t support this claim — nearly all states, regardless of access/restrictions, saw a decline in the abortion rate.
So, what’s been driving down the abortion rate for the past four decades? Well, all across the board, the United States is also experiencing a historic decline in birth rates.
I don’t think you can point to any one reason why birth rates (and, in turn, abortions) are decreasing across America.
But I have a few ideas:
- The effectiveness, availability, usage, and variety of contraceptives has increased significantly in recent decades. Specifically, female-centric birth control options (like the Pill, IUDs, etc) mean women no longer have to fully rely on male-centric birth control techniques (like pulling out, wearing a condom, etc) to prevent pregnancy.
- Cultural attitudes toward sex have shifted dramatically. Even in a church setting, sex is more likely to be discussed as a pleasurable activity performed between two consenting adults than a reproductive act.
- Teenagers and young people are having less sex. Yeah, this may come as a shock for many of you, but the kids aren’t getting it on as often as their parents or grandparents were at similar ages. (And the teenage pregnancy rate has halved in the past decade).
- Young people are delaying significant life milestones (homeownership, marriage, kids, etc) in comparison to previous generations at similar life stages. This point probably deserves its own article, but as a result of the student debt crisis, out-of-control rent/housing costs, and economic uncertainty/job insecurity, more and more people are “waiting” to settle down and start a family.
I think it’s very important to note that the decline in the U.S.’s birthrate is not indicative of a desire not to have children. Overwhelming, younger Americans still want to get married and have kids. They’re just struggling to fit it in with all the economy has thrown at them.
Before we move on, a word about contraceptives.
Q: What causes abortions? A: Unintended pregnancies.
Q: And what helps prevent unintended pregnancies? A: Birth control.
A three-year study conducted in St. Louis found that offering women free contraceptives dropped the abortion rate 66% — 75% below the national average. A similar study by Washington University dropped the abortion rate below 62% — 78% the national rate. And a program offering free IUDs in Colorado also netted a significant decline in the abortion rate.
It could well be argued that condoms, IUDs, and birth control pills have done more to decrease abortions than any piece of legislative action or religious belief.
Well, people shouldn’t have sex unless they’re ready to have kids, you might be thinking. Sorry to burst your bubble, but no amount of moralizing is going to stop people from having sex for pleasure’s sake — whether single, in a relationship, or married. Besides, studies have shown that abstinence-only sex education actually leads to an increase in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Overturning Roe v. Wade is the carrot-on-the-stick dangled in front of conservative evangelical voters every election cycle. And, if you’re staunchly anti-abortion, it’s a pretty appealing carrot.
Let’s say Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court in the near future. (In my mind this is a when not an if scenario – sorry, but the writing is on the wall). Abortion becomes illegal, right?
If Roe v. Wade is overturned, the decision to keep abortion legal will fall to state legislatures to decide. Most red states (where Pro-Life voters obviously congregate) already have very restrictive abortion policies.
In his op-ed, “Do Pro-Lifers Who Reject Trump Have Blood on their Hands?,” conservative David French writes,
“The consequence is that overruling Roe would have a disproportionate effect in states with already-low abortion rates. A recent study calculated a potential 32.8 percent decrease in the abortion rate “for the regions at high risk of banning abortions.” But for the nation as a whole, the abortion rate would likely shrink by only 12.8%.”
In other words, overturning Roe v. Wade would be a significant blow to the Pro-Choice Movement, but it’s also not the “magic bullet” solution touted by Evangelical political pundits. Now, a 12.8% decrease isn’t nothing, but that percentage fails to take into account how the Pro-Choice Movement would mobilize in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision.
In retaliation for overturning Roe v. Wade, you’ll undoubtedly see blue states pass legislation to further protect and expand abortion access (like New York’s 2019 Reproductive Health Act). Public, private, and grassroots fundraising efforts would ramp significantly as well as underground abortion networks (and mail-order abortion services) in states where the procedure is banned.
In countries that have banned abortion, the results have been less than ideal (and occasionally horrifying). And, in some cases, countries that ban abortion see an increase in abortion rates.
Also, in the same way that “dry” counties merely encourage people to drive to a “wet” county to purchase alcohol, a person seeking an abortion in a red state can travel to a blue state to have the procedure. This means the abortion rate will primarily drop among those who don’t have the money or resources to travel across state lines — so, once again, the most vulnerable and financially overburdened.
Additionally, many of the women’s healthcare clinics that would be shut down provide their communities with free sex education, STI testing, breast cancer screenings, and (this is very important) birth control pills and condoms — services many Pro-Life organizations are hesitant to endorse or offer. It’s one thing to take down a flawed public institution; it’s quite another to replace it with something that better fulfills an equivalent public health and social need.
Like trying to put out a fire with a bucket of water in one hand and a bucket of gasoline in the other, it’s nonsensical to advocate for tighter abortion restrictions while simultaneously supporting (or ignoring) policies that push women toward abortions in the first place.