Politics & Policy

The Truth about Abortion

Most abortions serve as nothing more than birth control.

Bronx Democrat Michael Benjamin, a New York State assemblyman, feels bad that 41 percent of New York City pregnancies ended in abortion last year. He feels bad enough to help set up a program that would try to convince pregnant women not to have abortions, he told my colleague Brian Bolduc. He just doesn’t feel bad enough to change his belief that abortion should be allowed — that is, his belief that unborn children don’t deserve legal protection.

There is an obvious tension between thinking that unborn children are in some sense human lives worth saving, and also thinking that these human beings should have no formal right not to be harmed. But just as troubling is Benjamin’s apparent belief that trying to talk pregnant women out of abortions — while supporting abortion in myriad other ways, including Medicaid funding — is a good way to attack the problem.

He’s not the only person to think that, thanks to a common misconception: the belief that for the most part, abortions happen because sympathetic women — women who are deeply conflicted about aborting their children — find themselves in trouble and just need someone to help. We see this in pro-lifers when they insist that while abortion is murder, we shouldn’t prosecute women for it (an argument they often make on the grounds that the women are victims, too). We see it in moderate abortion-rights supporters when they claim they hate abortion and want to work with pregnant women to lower the abortion rate, but still want to protect a woman’s choice in desperate times.

But the fact is that the majority of abortions — far from all, but the majority — serve as nothing more than routine birth control: Most women who have abortions became pregnant by willingly engaging in high-risk sexual activity, and many resort to abortion more than once. For a solid pro-choicer, this presents no problem; if unborn children have no rights, there is no harm done. But pro-lifers and moderate pro-choicers like Benjamin need to face the fact that while programs designed to talk women out of abortion are one useful tool in a pro-life strategy, they will not significantly lower the abortion rate by themselves. Those who are truly concerned about abortion should have two priorities: first, overturning Roe v. Wade so that states may ban abortion; and second, in the meantime, designing an anti-abortion program that will appeal to women who use the procedure as birth control.

The single most damning statistic about abortion in America was presented in Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s book Freakonomics: Following Roe v. Wade, conceptions rose by almost 30 percent, while births decreased by 6 percent. This quite clearly indicates that some women (and men) took the existence of legal abortion as a license to be less responsible in their sexual behavior; indeed, it suggests that a large majority of terminated pregnancies wouldn’t have existed in the first place if abortion hadn’t been legally available as a backup.

And the overwhelming majority of women who have abortions did behave irresponsibly. According to a survey by the Guttmacher Institute, nearly half of them didn’t use any form of contraception at all in the month they got pregnant. Of those who did use contraception, three-quarters of pill users and half of condom users admit they used their method “inconsistently.” Only 13 to 14 percent of pill and condom users claim they got pregnant despite “perfect” use.

It’s not as if they don’t know better. In the Guttmacher survey, most women who didn’t use contraception in the month they got pregnant had used it in the past. And as Benjamin notes, “comprehensive sex ed” classes that encourage contraception seem to have no effect whatsoever.

The prevalence of multiple abortions is another indicator that women who have abortions do not see the practice as a highly regrettable but sometimes necessary option. If they saw it that way, one imagines, they would be particularly careful after needing a first abortion. And yet each year, of the 2 percent of women aged 15 to 44 who have an abortion, half are not having their first.

For those who oppose abortion, overturning Roe v. Wade clearly needs to be the highest priority. In the meantime, programs that encourage women not to have abortions can work in some cases, and there’s evidence that various state laws (informed consent, restrictions on Medicaid funds, etc.) can reduce abortion, too — between 1990 and 2005, the abortion rate declined 25 percent, in part because of these laws. But what can we do to persuade women who use abortion as birth control to carry their babies to term?

I have made the case (in The American Spectator), as has my colleague Kevin D. Williamson (in National Review), that we should simply pay them to give their kids up for adoption. The specifics are debatable — I envision a program (funded by donations, fees from adoptive parents, and possibly the government) that offers a payment of a fixed amount for a healthy infant; Williamson essentially proposes a free market in babies. But the basic premise is the same: If a woman doesn’t value her child, and if the Supreme Court forbids us to pass a law protecting that child, perhaps a little cash will do the trick.

This may be crass, and it won’t work in many cases. Disturbingly, in a Guttmacher survey of women having abortions — a survey that didn’t specifically ask about adoption — “more than one-third of interview respondents said they had considered adoption and concluded that it was a morally unconscionable option because giving one’s child away is wrong.” In addition, there will be racial complications: Black women are more likely to have abortions, while black children are less in demand on the adoption market; also, some identity-politics activists oppose giving black children to white families. But this would save lives, and it would certainly be more effective than trying to talk women out of abortions.

If the pro-life movement is to have any success without overturning Roe v. Wade, it has to see the problem clearly. And thus it has to face the fact that many women use abortion as birth control.

— Robert VerBruggen, a National Review associate editor, runs the Phi Beta Cons blog.


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