Politics & Policy

Marching Onward

Pro-lifers save lives.

A friend once commented that growing up a fan of the Boston Red Sox (as he had done) was good preparation for being a conservative later in life because it prepares you for perpetual disappointment. Something similar might be said about pro-lifers, thousands of whom will participate in the 30th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. today. They’ve struggled against the regime of Roe v. Wade for three decades, but haven’t come close to claiming the victory they want more than any other: a constitutional amendment protecting unborn children from death by abortion. Even a court decision that trims the galling sweep of Roe has eluded them, as evidenced by recent failures to outlaw the rare but brutal procedure of partial-birth abortion.

To be sure, pro-lifers have made some modest political gains of late; NR’s Kathryn Jean Lopez describes several of them here. Public opinion also looks as favorable as ever: 60 percent of Americans believe abortion should be “legal in only a few circumstances” or “illegal in all circumstances,” versus 38 percent who would have it legal in “any” or “most” circumstances, according to a CNN/USA Today poll released last week. But support for a constitutional amendment is weak: 59 percent oppose one that grants a life-of-the-mother exception. Any realistic pro-lifer must admit that passing such an amendment is a far-off goal, and that there’s a very good chance it won’t ever happen — at least not before the Red Sox win a World Series.

Amid this disappointment, however, there’s heartening news: Both the rate and ratio of abortions are dropping, which means that more pregnant women are choosing life over “choice.” There are still far too many abortions — more than a million a year, and more than 40 million since Roe — but there are also a large number of people alive today because attitudes have changed.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which keeps tabs on abortion numbers, the abortion rate has dropped to 21.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 — the lowest rate since 1974. Perhaps even more important and impressive is the abortion ratio: 24.5 percent of all viable pregnancies end in abortion, another low since 1974.

These numbers are sobering, of course: They still represent a lot of abortions, and some of the decline is probably due to the increased use of so-called emergency contraceptives, and is therefore overstated. But the numbers do show a measurable improvement over the recent past, and this can’t be forgotten. As National Right to Life pointed out in a press release last week, “The numbers indicate a significant decrease in abortion that translates into about 300,000 fewer children dying from abortion in 2000 as compared to [AGI’s] figures for 1990.”

There are plenty of reasons for this drop, and some possible explanations don’t have much to do with the pro-life movement, such as an improving economy. Others are only marginally related, such as the almost providential advent of sonograms and fetal photography (though pro-lifers deserve credit for promoting these). But a few may have direct bearing, such as pro-lifers forcing a public discussion about the horror of partial-birth abortion, including graphic descriptions of what the procedure actually entails. Pro-lifers also have ensured that abortions aren’t something women brag about having — there’s still a stigma attached to them, which is as it should be.

Whatever the causes, pro-lifers frustrated by the pace of progress should take comfort from these new figures. They’re like 300,000 points of light.

John J. Miller, the national correspondent for National Review and host of its Great Books podcast, is the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. He is the author of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America.


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