No, Educating the General public on abortion hasn't happened -- but abortion Numbers are dropping anywayRead Now
With this article, I am continuing to argue against Michael New that pregnancy help is more likely the driver behind the drop in abortion rates and ratios since the mid-1980s. All the other candidates (increased and more effective contraception, pro-life education and protest, state abortion restrictions, or reduced numbers abortion centers) are not continuous over the period during which abortion ratios dropped (from 36.4 per hundred live births in 1984 to 18.8 in 2015), or have been shown to have no correlation, and/or, in the case of changes to the law, have had an immediate effect, but no provable, ongoing one. (You can read our discussion to date in sequence, beginning with my response in The Federalist online to his National Review article, here, here, here, and here.) Why does this matter? Because we need to know what works, and focus more of our time, energy and resources there. Abortion ratios will continue to go down: we can make them fall faster.
My purpose, then, is not wholly negative; I wish to rain on no one’s parade. However, by seeing things truly, we can be realistic and practical in how we approach saving moms and babies from abortion. The natural temptation is to think that our pro-life efforts, whatever they are, must be effective, because they simply have to be. Otherwise, what would we do? Well, . . . .
We often assume that, if you educate the general public on pregnancy and abortion, fewer women will have abortions. To my knowledge, we have no evidence that this has happened, and we have had 46 years or so to do so. (Advertising pregnancy help centers to the narrower audience of women who may be abortion-vulnerable appears to be effective, however, from our experience in Pittsburgh.) Dr. New admits that we don’t have evidence when he writes that “it is certainly likely that changing attitudes among young people might be playing a role in these large abortion rate declines.”
In his last article, Dr. New argues that “a closer examination of public opinion data indicates there has been a shift in abortion attitudes, especially among young people.” Is this so? I would argue that this shift is feeble in terms of the abortion debate, and is not the result of pro-life education, and that whatever changes can be seen do not account for that continuous, even drop in abortion ratios since the 1980s.
Let’s look at those changes in attitude. Are young people more in favor of things like a ban on abortions after 20 weeks? It may depend on which poll you consult. Dr. New refers to a Quinnipiac poll from 2017, claiming that it “found that 18-to-34-year-olds were more likely than other age demographics to support a ban on abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation.” He is mistaken, however: Quinnipiac reports that the 18-34-year-old cohort is actually less supportive of a ban than the 35-59-year-old cohort, 49 to 54 percent. His colleague Susan Willis found that “the age demographic that showed the largest-percentage decline [in abortion rates from 1990 to 2010] were those aged 15-19, whose abortion rate fell by 71 percent.” This reduction is less remarkable, however, when we realize that pregnancy rates (births, abortions, fetal loss) had fallen 63 percent from 1990 to 2013.
He argues that the most dependable guide to public opinion, in particular the opinion of relatively young people, is the General Social Survey, which has asked the same seven questions about grounds for abortion since 1977 (2012 Final Report: Trends in Public Attitudes towards Abortion, May 2013). Six of the questions were asked for years previously. Here are the subjects of the questions, and the decline in support for abortion from 1977 to 2012 in each case, among those 18–35 years of age: “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if . . .” the woman’s health is seriously endangered (92 to 82 percent); the pregnancy resulted from rape (81 to 76 percent); there was a serious defect in the fetus (86 to 68 percent); the family is too poor to afford another child (55 to 42 percent), when a married woman does not want more children (49 to 41 percent); or when the woman is unmarried and does not want to marry the prospective father (47 to 37 percent)? It is true that, from 2000 on, the 18-35 cohort shows decreasing support for abortion on the various grounds.
The trend is significant, but it signifies disillusionment with abortion, not a growth in pro-life sentiment. Pro-life education makes clear that human life begins at conception; that there is no qualitative change that suddenly makes something – that is not an organ of the woman’s body – into an equally protectable life. It shows that abortion at any stage kills a unique, individual, human being, often enough in gruesome ways. This education would not moderate the views of people in the middle, so that, for example, they think that abortion is acceptable before 20 weeks, but unacceptable afterwards, or that some low level of income could go onto the scale against the life of the child. (People who pride themselves on being “moderate” on abortion should be asked if they are also “moderate” on racism; against slavery, say, but happy with Jim Crow.) It has to be admitted: most people are ignorant about prenatal development and abortion, and not many have given much thought to it, but they think that there should be some restrictions on the practice of abortion. We may be pleased that some people are becoming disillusioned with abortion, but to claim that these changes in the poll results are the effect of pro-life education is grasping at straws.
If pro-life education were seriously affecting public opinion, we would see a decline in the seventh question added to the General Social Survey: whether or not it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion “if she wants it for any reason.” We have no reason to think that those who agree are hard-core, pro-abortion absolutists, who could never be persuaded of anything. They are likely as unthinking as the others, and thus open to education, if they were interested. Here there is virtually no change since 1977: about 40 percent consistently say it simply should be up to the woman, as the graph below shows.
A small percentage of respondents to the polls over the years are simply illogical. For 13 years, the levels of support for abortion “if she is not married and does not want to marry the man” fall below the levels of support for abortion “for any reason.” In other words, these respondents said that it should be possible for a woman to have an abortion for any reason, but not if she does not want to marry.
We can see that education is not responsible for the decline in the overall support for abortion with various conditions by the fact that, as the 18–34 cohort of 1977 moves entirely into the 34–59-year-old bracket (from 2000 on), their support for these conditions increases slightly for the period 2002–2012, on average. If you “get” when equally protectable human life begins, when you see the destructiveness of abortion, you don’t unlearn it.
If education were responsible for the decline in support for abortion under various circumstances, then what educational initiatives would have been responsible for this decline? What happened in the 1990s and years following that made the decline fairly continuous? The answers that will spring to most peoples’ minds will not be from large-scale programs of pro-life education, but from politics, and these deserve a separate examination. (Shouldn’t the Gosnell affair have made New York’s permissive, late-term abortion law unlikely?)
If pro-life education is not driving abortion rates and ratios lower, what else might be doing so? I have already mentioned pregnancy help, which is a strong candidate at this point. Another possibility is the increasing number of women who, over the years, came to view their abortions as a mistake. One study found that first-trimester abortion patients expressed the following one week after their abortions: relief (96 percent); happiness (53 percent); regret (33 percent); guilt (55 percent); sadness (61 percent) and anger (28 percent). It is reasonable to suppose that the relief and happiness would fade quickly, while the negative assessments would not. While most women would forget about their abortions, one can imagine that, year over year, the minority of those women who viewed their abortion decisions negatively would have grown in size. (Many help out at pregnancy help centers now.) Here is a possible scenario: a twenty-year-old woman has an abortion in 1975, but bears children five to seven years later. These children reach their twenties in the early 2000s. Somehow they learn about their mother’s abortion and its negative effects. They reject abortion for themselves (in theory, and/or practically). Could first-hand, negative views of abortion, shared in close circles of family and friends, have played a big part in the decline in abortion numbers, and in the decline in support for abortion on various grounds, while leaving support for the ideologically sacrosanct “right to abortion” untouched? I don’t know, but the possibility is intriguing.
Psychologist and philosopher William James made a helpful analysis of decision-making many years ago. Relevant to this topic are his distinctions between decisions that are forced and unforced, and between those that are momentous and those that are trivial. A forced decision is one we can’t avoid making; an unforced one can be put off. A momentous decision is irrevocable and for significant stakes, while a trivial one can be reversed or has little effect one way or the other. Polling on abortion involves unforced and trivial decisions – not that the subject is trivial, but there are no real consequences to telling someone anything on the phone, and you don’t have to answer to begin with. Choosing abortion or life for your child, however, is both a forced and a momentous decision. (Attempts to trivialize the decision often show all the signs of a bad conscience, of the me-thinks-she-doth-protest-too-much variety. “Shout your abortion!” – Really?)
If we think education is important, then we should focus our efforts on those who, we know, are likely to respond, to see how momentous the abortion decision is. So, for example, we know that seriously pro-life people are more likely to go to a church regularly (whether theologically liberal or conservative). Rather than attempt to educate a general public that is disinterested in the issue and finds it distasteful, why not focus educational efforts on the faithful, but ignorant? We rally the troops to go see the movie Unplanned, but perhaps we should also say, “Ask somebody you see in church each week what she thinks about the new abortion law in New York State. If she doesn’t know what you’re talking about, invite her to Unplanned.” Otherwise we may be filling the theaters with the committed, and preaching to the choir, as Nicole Russell suggests. It may be morale-boosting, but it is not educating the general public.
Even better, why not narrow the focus? The person most likely to see the abortion decision as forced and non-trivial is the woman who is pregnant, or may become pregnant soon. Advertising pregnancy help, especially pregnancy medical centers, is not education in itself, but it opens the door to educating the person most involved in abortion, and her husband or partner, or her parents. In Pittsburgh, the annual ratios of abortions to live births dropped 24 percent from 2010 to 2017, after Vision for Life began advertising (versus 17 percent for the rest of Pennsylvania). I would assume that not all of the women who chose life came to one of the centers we advertise. The advertising itself, I think, reaches some women beyond the pro-choice bromides with which they reflexively agree.
Dr. New will be presenting a paper on his research into the effect of the increase in the number of pregnancy help centers on abortion rates, and I look forward to reading it. I hope that it confirms my view of them as the main drivers of the drop in abortion ratios – rates may drop anyway, because fewer people are having sex, but ratios measure how frequently pregnant women resort to abortion. If he finds that the growth in the number of centers, now over 2,750, is not the major cause, or a major cause, of the 48 percent drop in abortion ratios from 1984 to 2015, we will be at a loss to explain it.
Chris Humphrey has been involved in pro-life activity of one kind or another since the late 1970s, when he first looked at the subject of abortion in seminary in Canada. He has an undergraduate degree in English (University of Toronto), and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in religious studies (McGill). He has had a varied career as a pastor, chaplain in a psychiatric hospital, editor of academic and instructional publications, semi-professional photographer, and home renovator. He is a husband of over 40 years to Edith (a Professor of New Testament), father to three girls, and grandfather to seventeen grandchildren. He lives and works in the Stanton Heights neighborhood of Pittsburgh.