The following is adapted from a note I recently wrote to a friend on the topic of abortion. More specifically, I was responding to this article.
Reducing the rate of abortion is a lot more complicated than simply overturning Roe v. Wade or defunding Planned Parenthood. The evangelical solution du jour for everything is the political one. Somehow if you just defund something that is publicly funded, or make something illegal, it will go away.
It’s good that the author gets into the complexity of abortion rates and stats, although I wish the RAND Corporation article he cites had given some of the social history of abortion in Russia. And it was good to note that illegality has not stopped the abortion rate from being very high in Uganda (alongside an astronomical fertility rate: 6.24 births per woman according to the World Bank). Marvin Olasky’s social history of abortion in America estimates that there could easily have been 100,000 abortions a year among prostitutes alone in the United States around the time of the Civil War (1.8 per prostitute annually). That puts the abortion rate in 1860 in the neighborhood of the rate in 2000. (Estimating 100,000+/total population of 31m in 1860 vs. 1.31m/total pop. of 249m in 2000.) So this far more complicated than simply outlawing abortion.
But there are very real problems with the article. First, the author is not believable in his claim to be concerned. Evangelicals often sound alarmist: this is because they are genuinely and legitimately alarmed. The author here is not. “I value life” – the lives of various people around the world. “I also value the nascent human life of the unborn.” Ah, that fatal adjective. This cell mass is on its way to being a human life; by implication, I am on my way to valuing it alongside lives I already consider human.
Second, maybe I missed this, but why won’t Roe v. Wade reduce the number of abortions? Roe v. Wade outlawed states from making laws prohibiting abortion (with the exception of late-term, viable children). If it were overturned tomorrow there would be a raft of new state laws restricting or prohibiting the practice within months. Some of those laws – such as those requiring women seeking abortion to view ultrasounds of their children (and these laws have repeatedly been challenged, and sometimes struck down on the basis of Roe) – are exactly aimed at moral suasion rather than simple prohibition. For certain, some women in a no-abortion state will go out of state, and others will seek an illegal abortion. But others will take an abortion off the table as an option. Ease of access + official approval = nudge toward a decision.
That gets to the third and maybe biggest problem. Planned Parenthood is a powder keg because its existence and funding represent the stance that abortion is a public good. The secular liberal academic, media, and political establishments (and they are mostly secular and mostly liberal, even if Fox News says so) are of the opinion that unborn children are not human, and access to abortion is a human right. (There are rare, honest people like Naomi Wolf who say that an unborn child is human, and that they still have a right to abort.) Meanwhile members of the white upper class hardly ever practice what they preach. They use contraception carefully, have fewer partners, and marry. You know the stats. Abortion is far more common among poor and racial minority women than among middle income or white women.
There seems to be an assumption here that bad behavior is inevitable among the proles, so we had better make sure they can clean up after themselves. Won’t fewer unwanted poor children benefit society as a whole? Further, the gains of the sexual revolution are so important, so precious, that we will never publicly question them.
Evangelical Christians are often very removed from the everyday world of modern cities, filled as they are with educated, sexually polymorphous, and diverse people. That reality wears on those who live in the middle of it (as difference inevitably does). But evangelicals are also closer to the lower/working class world of babies and work and welfare and dysfunctional extended families than many of us are, and they have correctly sniffed out a major problem with funding Planned Parenthood and not striking down Roe: the effective, powerful message these send that sexual promiscuity is fine, just as long as you don’t let it get in the way of your (economic) dreams. At the end of the day, anything goes, as long as Moloch (or actually, Mammon) gets his due.
Ending abortion is far more complicated than simply striking down Roe or defunding Planned Parenthood. But those are important steps to take, if we are ever to seriously pursue the goal (voiced by Presidents Clinton and Obama) of reducing the number of induced abortions in the United States.