Abortion: Where things stand
The breadth and depth of the threat to the unborn in America
Mother’s Day tomorrow will bring joy for millions of moms but sad memories for millions more, and some dads as well. Since 1973 Americans have aborted 60 million babies. I was never responsible for one but could have been before Christ claimed me in 1976: There but for God’s grace go I.
My wife Susan founded the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center in 1984 and we remained active in the pro-life movement for the next 15 years. For two decades I’ve been away from it except for writing occasional columns and editing stories. Now I’m back, and that return includes a book, Abortion at the Crossroads, published in February. Here are excerpts from the conclusion. —Marvin Olasky
I remember predictions in 1973 that the United States would move toward four million abortions annually. Forecasters arrived at that number by seeing what the demand was in countries without any abortion restrictions. For example, the Soviet Union in 1935 had 1.9 million abortions in a population of 162 million, and that same ratio in the U.S. now would bring us almost exactly to four million. Of course, this is wholly speculative because the cultures, economies, and eras are so radically different, but the prediction had some rationality behind it.
The result in the U.S. has defied that expectation. In 2018, forty-five years after Roe v. Wade, the number of abortions in the United States was probably not much higher than it was in 1973, the first year of national legality. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the annual number of induced abortions in the United States doubled between 1973 and 1979, peaked in 1990, and in 2018 had declined by 45 percent—even though the U.S. population has increased by 54 percent since Roe.
That’s an amazing change, and some usual ways of explaining it fall short. Yes, the number of births has fallen during the past three decades, but by less than 10 percent: 4.2 million in 1990, and 3.8 million in 2018. Yes, contraceptive use has increased, but according to both Contraceptive Technology (20th edition) and the UK’s National Health Service, one of every eleven women using oral contraceptives will be pregnant within a year. Planned Parenthood’s Guttmacher Institute acknowledges that half of aborting women used birth control during the month they became pregnant.
Despite verbiage about abortion discussions between “a woman and her doctor,” Guttmacher in 2014 also admitted that 95 percent of abortions occur in freestanding abortion centers, apart from any established doctor-patient relationship. Happily, the pro-life Lozier Institute reported that many women do get counseling at 2,700 pro-life pregnancy centers nationwide that served almost two million people in 2019. Heartbeat International says the number of organizations offering assistance to pregnant women increased by 86 percent between 1988 and 2015.
Pro-life centers in 2019 provided free services—including 486,000 free ultrasounds—with an estimated value of nearly $270 million, according to the Lozier Institute. The centers had 15,000 paid staffers (including nearly 3,800 licensed medical workers) and nearly 54,000 volunteers (including 6,400 licensed medical volunteers). Almost all of the centers offered material help and parenting/prenatal education, four of five offered ultrasounds, and three out of four post-abortion recovery help.
Pro-life laws, including limiting public funding of abortion and abortion businesses, parental-involvement laws, and informed-consent laws that ensure mothers have the information they need, contributed to the decrease. Photos, ultrasounds, pro-life movies, and Super Bowl commercials (an unborn child yearning for snack food) had an impact.
Some people prayed, and some who put up “I Believe in Science” yard signs accepted factual information about the beating hearts of unborn children. Somehow many Americans absorbed a pro-life message or arrived at such thinking on their own. From 1990 to 2017, the Supreme Court and most leaders in academia and media defended abortion—and the number of abortions declined. Presidents alternately supposed and opposed the abortion regime—and the number of abortions declined.
Another reason the 45 percent decline is impressive: Women in their twenties, prime child-bearing age, are much less likely to be married now than in 1973. Overall, the unmarried have less sexual intercourse than the married. Only 4 percent of every twenty-five unborn children with a married mother face abortion, compared to 28 percent with an unmarried mother. Having cohabiting parents also puts unborn children at great risk. LGBT advances and increased pornography use may also be reducing the number of opportunities for an unplanned pregnancy.
Overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control, unmarried women in 2016 produced 86 percent of all abortions. Metropolitan areas have also grown, and unborn children living in them have double the danger of those living outside those areas. So the abortion total could be much worse.
But let’s face the enormity. More than sixty million children have been legally aborted in the United States since 1973. We know China for years has had the highest abortion rate. Only nine other countries in 2013, according to a United Nations report, had a higher rate than the U.S.: Bulgaria, Cuba, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, Sweden, and Ukraine. In the U.S., gestating while black is particularly dangerous: in 2016, the CDC reported, black women were more than 3.5 times more likely to abort than white women.
Furthermore, the Lozier Institute reports that the annual decrease in abortion may have ended, with total abortions in thirty-eight states increasing by 2 percent from 2017 to 2018. The reason is apparently an increase in chemical abortions, which have become much more frequent, and in 2018 comprised 41 percent of all abortions. Most Planned Parenthood centers no longer perform surgical abortions. (The average cost of abortions at nine to ten weeks gestation in 2014 was $508 for a surgical abortion, and $535 for a chemical one.) The drug of choice for the “abortion pill,” mifepristone, can be dangerous to mothers, as well as fatal to their unborn children, so the FDA requires abortion providers to distribute the pills from their centers rather than from pharmacies—but a push to make them available at local drug stores is likely during a Biden administration.
Although more than 90 percent of chemical abortions still take place in abortion offices, the number of untracked, at-home abortions is probably growing. Information about how to self-manage chemical abortions is becoming increasingly available online. It’s possible that the decline in abortion from 2014 to 2017 may not have been as large as it appears. Guttmacher data for 2017 show that 18 percent of nonhospital facilities reported having seen at least one patient who had attempted to end a pregnancy on her own, an increase from 12 percent in 2014.
Sometime soon, the ascending line of chemical abortions and the descending line of surgical abortions will cross. The COVID-19 epidemic, by accelerating the growth of telemedicine, has probably speeded that up. Opponents of pornography fought porn shops in their cities: Most of them are closed now, since thousands of online sites are now a click away. A decline in the number of abortion centers may be another victorious loss.
A 2019 Hill-Harris survey showed 45 percent of Americans saying laws banning abortion after six weeks of gestation are too restrictive, 34 percent saying, “just right,” and 21 percent saying, “too lenient.” If the Supreme Court follows opinion polls, as historically it often has, several hundred thousand unborn children would potentially gain legal protection. Major media could end most of the ignorance reflected in the 2020 survey, but abortion coverage is now rare and usually involves telling rather than showing, contra typical journalistic practice….
Let’s go back to Justice Harry Blackmun’s statement in Roe: “Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed by childcare. There is also the distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved. All these are factors the woman and her responsible physician necessarily will consider in consultation.”
I’ve boldfaced Blackmun’s last sentence because such “consultation” was often a fantasy in 1973, and almost always is now. Discussion with a responsible physician rarely occurs. For almost all women having surgical abortions, the first time they’ve ever seen the doctor who will operate on them is as they climb onto a surgical table. As the number of do-it-yourself chemical abortions grows, even that minimal human contact will be gone.
I remember how the Austin Crisis Pregnancy Center helped a young woman whose story is typical, up to a point. Her boyfriend and angry parents did not show compassion. She felt all alone, but did not want to abort her child. She lived at our house for nine months. It was hard, and sometimes she cried in her room, but she persevered. After the delivery, her boyfriend showed up, fell in love with her baby, and then fell in love with her all over again. They married, stayed together, and had two more children.
That last part of the story is atypical, but it doesn’t have to be. Nor is adoption an impossible dream, although it has its own complexities. Ironically, pro-life people tend to be more pro-choice than abortion advocates who believe all reasonable roads lead to Nome, an icy end to an unborn child. Pregnancy resource centers offer consultations where a woman can weigh four options: abortion, adoption, single- parenting, and maybe even marriage….
In 1973, we did not have much knowledge of heart activity in the womb. Justice Blackmun wrote, in Roe, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” He said doctors and others “are unable to arrive at any consensus.” He said, “the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”
In 1984, A.V. Cadkin and J. McAlpin, writing in the Journal of Ultrasound Medicine, announced their “Detection of fetal cardiac activity between 41 and 43 days of gestation.” They wrote, “Using a high-resolution real-time arc sector scanner, fetal cardiac activity was detected in ten normal intrauterine pregnancies, including one triplet gestation, between 41 and 43 days of gestation. Fetal heart rates ranged from 96 to 120 beats/min (mean 110) and were detected contiguous with the yolk sac as a tiny blinking, flashing, and/or rocking echo with a regular rhythm.”
Those trained in medicine now do have knowledge: heartbeats at six weeks. Creatures that are dead or imaginary do not have heartbeats. Those who are alive do. Maybe we haven’t resolved whether the creature in the womb is alive at four weeks, but we now know that at least by six weeks life has begun. I hope in 2022 or 2023 a Supreme Court majority, ruling on one of the new state heartbeat laws, will thank Justice Blackmun for having focused on this question ….
Meanwhile, Christians will continue to offer challenging, personal, and spiritual help. Many pregnancy resource centers have survived forty years of harassment by abortion advocates, some of whom will find homes in the Biden administration and press their goals from there. Journalists who support abortion but also freedom of speech will have to decide which is more important to them.
For some in a crisis, the deciding factor will be one they hardly expect. Whittaker Chambers in the 1930s was an ardent Marxist and materialist, but one evening his young daughter smeared porridge on her face: “My eye came to rest on the delicate convolutions of her ear—those intricate, perfect ears. The thought passed through my mind: ‘No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms …. They could have been created only by immense design …. At that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.’” Many couples married or unmarried, when they see their intricately made unborn child via ultrasound, hear not the roar of an earthquake or a powerful wind, but a gentle whisper ….
The year 2021 brings the 45th anniversary of the publication of one of the best columns ever written about abortion. Strikingly, a writer supporting abortion penned it, and The New York Times printed it in 1976. Author Linda Bird Francke originally published the column under the pseudonym Jane Doe, but then acknowledged it in a book she wrote, The Ambivalence of Abortion. After she and her husband decided they didn’t have room in their lives for a baby, she awaited the imminent operation and “began to panic. Suddenly the rhetoric, the abortion marches I’d walked in … peeled away, and I was all alone with my microscopic baby. There were just the two of us there, and soon, because it was more convenient for me and my husband, there would be one again.”
Francke asked herself how she could “so arbitrarily decide that this life shouldn’t be? ‘It’s not a life,’ my husband had argued, more to convince himself than me. ‘It’s a bunch of cells smaller than my fingernail.’ But any woman who has had children knows that certain feeling in her taut, swollen breasts, and that slight but constant ache in her uterus that signals the arrival of a life. Though I would march myself into blisters for a woman’s right to exercise the option of motherhood, I discovered there in the waiting room that I was not the modern woman I thought I was.”
The story ended poignantly: “It certainly does make more sense not to be having a baby right now—we say that to each other all the time. But I have this ghost now. A very little ghost that only appears when I’m seeing something beautiful, like the full moon on the ocean last weekend. And the baby waves at me. And I wave back at the baby. ‘Of course, we have room,’ I cry to the ghost. ‘Of course we do.’”
Every year since 2012, I’ve given ten mid-career professionals an intensive week of journalism training. One of my students, psychiatrist Susan Richter, called Linda Bird Francke, complimented her on the column, and requested an interview. Franke replied, “I’m not up on the issue anymore.” Richter told me, “I detected a sense of ambivalence and defensiveness in her. I wish I could tell this thinking, articulate woman that trying to bury old wounds doesn’t work. Post-abortive women have taught me that time doesn’t heal old wounds. God does.”
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