The Best Metrics of Pro-Life Progress

Attendees at the 2017 March for Life (James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)
Yes, we’re winning, slowly but surely, and we should stay the course.

This is the week of the annual March for Life. For pro-lifers across the country, the March for Life is a great opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., reunite with friends, and protest a tragic and indefensible Supreme Court decision that has shattered countless lives and led to the deliberate destruction of over 60 million innocent preborn children. This is also the one week when sanctity-of-life issues receive a significant amount of attention from sympathetic clergy, journalists, and elected officials. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is also an opportune time to plan, strategize, reflect on the past, and consider the future of the pro-life movement in this country.

If pro-lifers are honest, we should realize that in the eyes of many outside the pro-life movement, it does not appear as if we have made much progress since the first March for Life back in 1974. True, most people realize that pro-lifers gamely run pro-life political candidates and have scored some electoral victories. Furthermore, legislative efforts to limit taxpayer funding of abortion and restrict late-term abortions have enjoyed some success. That said, in the eyes of many, the pro-life movement has been ineffective because we have not yet achieved our goal of reversing the Roe v. Wade decision. Unfortunately, too many in the media, and even some pro-lifers, have bought into this narrative.

However, as I frequently point out in both my writing and research, pro-lifers have made very important progress in other ways. One key metric of pro-life progress is the declining abortion rate. The U.S. abortion rate has been falling consistently since 1980. It has fallen during both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. It has also fallen during both times of recession and times of economic prosperity. Data from the Guttmacher Institute show that the U.S. abortion rate fell by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2014. Furthermore, the most recent data indicate the abortion rate is currently lower than what it was in 1973 — the year Roe v. Wade was decided.

The long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate is certainly an important trend that deserves more attention. However, I would argue that an even more important metric of pro-life progress is the significant and durable increase in the percentage of unintended pregnancies carried to term. In 1981, 54 percent of unintended pregnancies resulted in an abortion. By 2011 that figure had fallen to 42 percent. Additionally, preliminary analysis of more recent data indicates that percentage has continued to fall during the past several years.

The reason these statistics are especially important is because they provide a useful counter-narrative to the mainstream media’s unrelenting and incorrect spin that falling abortion numbers are due to increases in contraception use. It is true that Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data indicate that contraception use has increased during the past 35 years. However, unintended-pregnancy rates in the United States were fairly stable during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. And while there is some evidence that the unintended-pregnancy rate has fallen since 2008, that decline took place literally decades after U.S. abortion rates started to decline.

More important, data showing that a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are carried to term provide very good evidence that pro-life efforts have been effective. If a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are carried to term, that means that pro-lifers are either 1) enacting protective laws 2) changing hearts and minds or 3) taking care of the material needs of pregnant women. Impressive progress has been made on each of these fronts. Data from Guttmacher indicate that since 2011, there has been a substantial increase in the number of pro-life laws enacted at the state level. Furthermore, there is a good body of academic research that shows that a variety of pro-life laws, including public-funding limits, parental-involvement laws, and properly designed informed-consent laws all reduce the incidence of abortion.

Additionally, data show that the pro-life position has made durable gains in the court of public opinion. A 1995 Gallup poll found that only 33 percent of respondents identified as “pro-life.” However, later Gallup surveys found that majorities identified as “pro-life” in both 2009 and 2012. Even more interesting data come from the General Social Survey (GSS). During the 1970s, the GSS found that young adults aged 18-29 were the age demographic most sympathetic to legal abortion. However, starting in 2000, identical survey questions found that young adults were actually the most pro-life age demographic. Finally, there are over 2,700 pregnancy help centers in the United States. These centers quietly and tirelessly help thousands of pregnant women every year choose life-affirming options for their unborn children.

As pro-lifers gather in Washington, D.C., on Friday for this year’s March for Life, we should take heart. Forty-six years of praying, marching, and engaging in other efforts to build a culture of life have borne fruit. We have made progress politically and legislatively. We have succeeded in changing hearts and minds. Most important, unborn lives continue to be saved because of our efforts. It is true that progress has not come as fast as many of us had hoped. However, it is indisputable that progress is being made. And we should have every confidence that if we stay the course, victory will someday be ours.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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