A presentation to those attending the fundraising banquet for Vision for Life – Pittsburgh, May 2, 2019
When we were young, my wife and I used to take our kids to a cottage on the French River, in Northern Ontario. The river was about a mile wide where we were, and very deep, and it looked more like a lake. The wind would blow up whitecaps on the river; sometimes from the west or the southwest, and sometimes from the southeast. We would go sailing, and try to bring the sail as close as we could to the water without tipping over. We had no sense that the river had a current. The waves came from every direction. That’s what was happening on the surface.
Let’s look at what’s been happening on the surface with public views of abortion.
This slide shows poll results for what’s called the General Social Survey. It has asked the same seven questions on abortion since 1977. One of those questions is, “Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion for any reason whatever.” See the line? It goes up, it goes down, but there’s no trend. The wind changes, and people change their minds. Around 40% say that a woman should be able to have an abortion for any reason.
Are these people pro-abortion? No, most of them aren’t. They just think that we, or society, doesn’t have a right to stop a woman from aborting for any reason.
We’ve had 46 years since Roe v. Wade to change the public mind on abortion, and, generally speaking, our education and protests simply haven’t changed minds. Why? Because generally people don’t want to think about abortion, don’t want to talk about it. It is as distasteful for them as talking about going to the bathroom. And they generally prefer just to be troubled about it, but ignorant about it, too.
They don’t know, for example, that our hearts start beating 16 days after conception, about the time a woman is discovering that she’s pregnant. Or that the unique little whorls and ridges on our fingertips appear about 8 1/2 weeks after conception. They’ll sometimes say that abortion is murder, but that it’s up to the woman.
Polls, even on serious subjects, are inherently superficial and trivial, too. Any decision they make answering a pollster is going to be superficial, because there are no consequences for a wrong answer. And they don’t have to decide. They can say, “I don’t know.” Or they can just hang up. We know that the vast majority of voters don’t consider a candidate’s views on abortion to be determinative when they vote. That’s the surface.
You wouldn’t know that the French River had a current, until you went to the narrows, east of our cottage. There, thousands of gallons of water pour every minute between banks about 40 feet across. In the deeps, the whole river is steadily moving, from east to west.
Now let’s look at what’s happening under the surface with abortion. These are the ratios of abortions to live births, from 1973 to 2015.
Since 1985, those ratios have been going down. That’s the trend. That’s the current. That’s what’s happening down deep. This isn’t just fewer abortions: this is more and more women each year, who know they are pregnant, choosing not to abort. These are the decisions that matter. These women can’t just hang up. Their decision isn’t trivial. They may say, “I don’t know,” but if they’re thinking about abortion, they have to reject it, or they have to pass on it, at some point. And more and more, they are. So we’re winning where it counts.
Why? Here’s a slide that shows the increase in the number of pregnancy help centers.
That green line actually understates the number of all pregnancy help centers. There are over 2,750, and they are found everywhere. You can see: as that number went up, abortion ratios went down. Each new center helped many women each year.
More important, perhaps, each center has made rejecting abortion possible for many more women. The fact that the center is there, says loud and clear, “You still have a choice. Other women like you are having their babies. Your doubts about abortion aren’t crazy. Your friend had her baby. You’re not a fool if you have your baby, too.” Down deep, they know it. And more and more women are doing the right thing, for which we thank God.
I have analyzed all of the possible reasons that abortion ratios have gone down, and none of them except pregnancy help accounts for the long, gradual decline: certainly not contraception; not a decrease in the number of abortion centers; not even restrictive state laws, though they have had a one-time impact in those states where they have been passed; and not changes in public opinion. I don’t think that all of these together are responsible, either. There is one main driver.
American women like pregnancy help. 92% – including “pro-choice” women – say it’s “necessary.” But 54% of women don’t know that there are pregnancy help centers in their communities (2014). When more of them know about them, more of them will pass on abortion.
You’re here because you’re pro-life. You may feel called to make a statement, to tell the world about prenatal development and abortion. There is a place for that, for protest, for education, for some of us. It seems, however, that part of your prophetic message should be, “Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive,” because few seem to be understanding or perceiving. Of course, God looks for fidelity, not success.
We know that people who are really convinced of the sanctity of life, and act on it, tend to be those who attend church regularly, so try inviting friends from church, who know little about abortion, to a movie like Unplanned. And then, when you have made others aware of the realities of abortion – with them, support pregnancy medical centers here in Pittsburgh.
If you are not compelled to prophetic protest or education, then I recommend that you approach our common task with straightforward realism, and pragmatically. We find out what works, and then we do more of it! If you want to have the biggest, immediate impact on abortion, support advertising for those centers. Why? Here’s a slide that shows what happened in Pittsburgh after we began advertising. The Pittsburgh pregnancy medical centers have been around since the mid-1980s. PA started publishing abortion numbers by county in 1995.
As you can see, the ratio of abortions to live births for Allegheny County residents dropped sharply, even compared to the gradual decline everywhere in PA. A statistician from our parish took a look at the data, and told me that this drop is statistically significant; it’s not a fluke.
I submit that, if we could triple or quadruple the advertising most centers in America do, especially in big cities, in one year we would see the biggest drop in abortion ratios since the CDC began counting. And then it would become even easier, politically, to overturn Roe v. Wade, and start making states protectors of the unborn from conception on.
When we began, 3 out of 4 babies were born; 1was aborted; after a couple of years of advertising, it was 4 out of 5 babies who were born. To reach 5 babies born, out of 6, we need to save 250 more babies in a year. To maintain our current level of advertising, and to reach those 250 more babies, we estimate that we need $40,000. Can you help us?
We don’t need a majority to change their minds on abortion. A small, principled, determined minority, can have profound effects. States with pro-life legislators have passed more than 350 laws restricting abortion since 2010, though the general public remains blasé about the subject. You know the war mini-series, Band of Brothers. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Henry V. King Henry’s roughly 8,500 troops had just won a battle against the French, and were hungry and exhausted. About half of his army had died of disease already, and many of the remainder were sick. The French forces numbered somewhere between 12,000 and 50,000. Henry rallied his troops by reminding them of previous English victories over the French. In Shakespeare’s play, Henry’s cousin wishes that they had more troops. Henry responds with the St. Crispin’s Day speech, one of the most rousing speeches in historical drama, which includes the line, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” (If you haven’t seen the Kenneth Branaugh version of Henry V, you must!) The English won the battle, against seemingly impossible odds. About 6,000 Frenchmen died, but only 400 Englishmen. They won, partly because of technology: their 7 thousands archers used the longbow, which could throw armor-piercing arrows 250 yards, 6 arrows every minute.
Advertising pregnancy help centers, I submit, can be the longbow in the long war against abortion. The ads are like arrows, raining down electronically – our ads showed up over 800,000 times in search results last year, for example, here in Allegheny County. Of course, they do not deal death, but point to life.
. . . Our fundraising banquet was a great success, but we are still in need of funds to keep those abortion ratios down, and to drive them even lower. Please go to our donation page and give sacrificially to help us save even more moms and babies from abortion!
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.
Michael New of the Charlotte Lozier Institute and I are engaged in a discussion (here and here) on what has brought down abortion ratios from their heights in the early 1980s to 18.8 per hundred live births, a figure lower than that of 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade. Pace Michael, I am not “downplaying” the role of education and legislative reform in this: my intention is to kindle interest in what I think is driving down those rates, the proliferation of pregnancy help centers, and to encourage their support. Education and legislative reform have their place, and are no doubt making a contribution where they are found, but I am saying that we have no strong evidence that either are driving this decline. When we advertise pregnancy help, as we have done in Pittsburgh, we see the ratios fall farther – which inclines one to think that the key role of these centers has been overlooked in our focus on changing the laws.
We Can Handle the Facts – And Their Absence
We need to be honest and realistic in assessing what is happening with abortion numbers. The decline of abortion ratios cited in my first Federalist article is gradual and continuous – the slight peaks and troughs are the “noise” of a steady “signal.” Is there a key factor, or a few key factors, that are continuous in operation from the beginning? In my first article I suggested that we may be seeing an ongoing psycho-social shift in the minds of generations of young, pregnant women regarding pregnancy, childbirth and abortion. This might be a shift which we cannot gauge, but whose effect is that fewer and fewer of them are seeking abortions. One factor in this shift might be personal knowledge of post-abortive women, a knowledge that disinclines a pregnant woman from following the path of someone she knows or hears about. This might have been a factor from the early 1970s on, so it can’t be discounted as not present throughout the period of this decline. Would it have increasing effects on abortion ratios, relative to their decline, however? That seems unlikely, but we simply don’t know. And so it goes with much of our speculation.
Public Opinion Has Not Shifted in Our Favor
Inasmuch as we do know about public opinion, we cannot say the same. Michael New claims that “Gallup data clearly indicates that since the mid-1990s, there has been both a long-term and durable increase in the percentage of Americans who identify as ‘pro-life.’” One of those new converts to the cause, of course, would be the President of Planned Parenthood, Dr. Leana Wen, who recently said that “being pro-choice is . . . being pro-family, . . . being pro-life.” It is somewhat encouraging to know that more people like to think of themselves as pro-life, but most of this can be dismissed as shallow self-regard: see the relatively level lines in the graph of the Gallup poll responses to the question, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances or illegal in all circumstances?" There is simply no real trend here. (This criticism applies to New’s confidence in the educational impact of abortion regulations as well: there’s no evidence of an effect on public opinion. It is true that the laws have a measurable, punctiliar impact on abortion ratios. So in Pennsylvania, the abortion ratio dropped 12.3 percent the year after the Abortion Control Act was finally implemented in 1993. The laws, however, do not explain the continuing drop in abortion ratios, or the fact that abortion ratios had already fallen by over 27 percent from 1981 to 1993.)
What of his claim that the General Social Survey found “long-term gains in pro-life sentiment”? The opposite claim could be made, as one analyst found that “more people” in the 2014 GSS survey “support legal abortion for any reason, no matter why a woman wants it. About 35 percent held that view in the 1970s – but the number has risen to 45 percent in 2014.” What of his claim that young adults were the demographic most sympathetic toward legal abortion until 2000, when they became the most opposed? A close examination of these figures from the General Social Survey show that the change is very slight, and can’t be compared to the 48 percent reduction in abortions per 100 live births (1984–2015). In a Quinnipiac poll of 2017, the 18 to 35 age group was more in favor of abortion as legal in all cases than any other demographic group, by 3 percentage points.
It is becoming common to observe that we really don’t have a solid grasp of what Americans think about abortion, nor of any trends. Pro-life education is important – how many of us would be pro-life without it? – but not because we can see that it’s changing public opinion as a whole. A local pregnancy medical center director told me that they still commonly hear women say, as they look at their unborn children on the ultrasound screen, “I had no idea.”
Can We Change Things without Changing Public Opinion?
So why does public opinion matter, and why do we want to change it? It may be that we can’t help ourselves: if we were silent, we feel, “the very stones would cry out.” Perhaps we think that, if only the majority of those we know could see the moral horror that is abortion, they would not have abortions, and we could change the laws and “end abortion”? (This is what we really want, but we need to come back to earth here: we won’t “end abortion,” or “abolish abortion” as such, any more than we could end bank robbery, drunk driving, or spousal abuse, simply with laws. Similarly, instead of talking about “a culture of life,” it’s time that we ask, Where have people actually created this “culture”? Perhaps we can contribute to it.)
What if we can reduce abortion numbers without changing the public mind on abortion? What if we can so reduce abortion numbers – reduce the demand for abortion – that it becomes politically much easier to criminalize the work of abortionists and protect unborn children? (This, we can assume, would have a big impact on abortion numbers, though our success, again, would lack the eschatological completeness of the slogans.) A shift of attention to making pregnancy help better known would be a strategic move, not a denial of the importance of laws.
Public Ambivalence Gives Us an In
Do the polls give us a clue as to why pregnancy help might be the reason for those dropping ratios? The American Enterprise Institute survey I cited in the earlier article points out that, over the years, “substantial numbers of people tell the pollsters that abortion is an act of murder. They also say that the decision to have an abortion should be a personal choice.” Similarly, people (and not just politicians) will say that they are personally pro-life, but that they can’t impose their morality on others. Ramesh Ponnuru observed somewhere that whoever is perceived as imposing on the other side in the struggle over abortion, loses. We saw this in Pennsylvania with former Governor Tom Corbett, whose proposed bill requiring that a woman be offered the opportunity to see her unborn child on the ultrasound screen before her abortion was widely criticized for imposing on the woman, and withdrawn. We have seen it recently on the other side, as the courts have rejected laws that would have required pregnancy help centers to advertise abortion services as well.
Pregnancy help involves no such imposition: it is assumed that women at all times have a choice, and that many will choose life when they have the right information and support. Americans like pregnancy help. A 2014 national poll commissioned by the Charlotte Lozier Institute found that 92 percent of women (many of whom would be “pro-choice”) said that pregnancy help centers were “very necessary” (70 percent) or “fairly necessary” (22 percent) in their communities. This positive view of pregnancy help was confirmed for us by a young actress who helps us with advertising local pregnancy medical centers in Pittsburgh. S.K. is “pro-choice”: personally “pro-life,” but not willing to judge anyone else, she tells us. Nonetheless, she now knows that these centers are “the way to go” for abortion-vulnerable women.
If we’re looking for that actualized “culture of life” we hear about, we find it in these centers. In 2003, the national pregnancy helpline OptionLine took 35,000 calls from women in need. Like the number of pregnancy help centers themselves over the years, the calls have increased: in 2018, Heartbeat International reports, that number was over 400,000. Over one million visited OptionLine’s website last year.
Vision for Life – Pittsburgh, the non-profit of which I am the Executive Director, began advertising to abortion-minded women in late 2010. In the next few years, abortion ratios for residents of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, fell sharply, and stood at roughly the same level before dipping again in 2017, the last year for which we have statistics, to 241 per 1,000 live births. From 2010 to 2017, abortion ratios declined 23.7 percent.
Is There a Statistician in the House?
We don’t know for certain that the increase in pregnancy help centers lies behind the drop in abortion ratios, but if advertising local centers can have this kind of effect, it seems likely.
Michael New observes that this is a “rich area for future academic and policy research.” I would welcome the Charlotte Lozier Institute’s work on it. If they were to decline, however, perhaps others, or even a lone sociologist or statistician, would take on the task. I have the data on the increase in the number of centers, but I lack the competence with statistics for a proper assessment.
We continue to need public education, academic debate, legal engagement, lobbying, and even protest, whether these demonstrably affect abortion numbers or not. If it can be shown, however, that pregnancy help is driving abortion ratios lower, then we should direct greater resources to the increase of the number of these centers, and to making all of the centers better known in their communities through advertising. Statistics and broad trends are dry matters, but with them, and God’s help, we may be able to deliver many more mothers and babies from the scourge of abortion.
Michael new misses the big question: is pregnancy help the chief reason abortion ratios are falling?Read Now
(I have offered the following article, a response to an article in National Review by Michael J. New of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, to National Review on January 24.)
Michael New’s January 19th article in National Review Online, “The Best Metrics of Pro-Life Progress,” rightly notes that abortion numbers are falling, which is encouraging for all of us who want to see the end of legal abortion in America. Before we celebrate, however, we should perhaps reconsider the best metric of success. If you measure the rates of abortion for every 1,000 women aged 14 to 44, as he does, the numbers drop significantly – more than 50 percent fewer in 2014 than in 1980. The problem with this, however, is that it does not take into account declining fertility in America. Raw birth numbers have been dropping for decades; one would expect abortion rates to fall as well. It’s more helpful, from a pro-life point of view, to know what proportion of all pregnant women choose abortion from year to year (excluding those who miscarry). If the ratios of abortions to live births go down, we know that more women are not seeking abortions, and we can look for possible reasons.
And go down those ratios have. From the peak of 36.4 per 100 live births in 1984 they have fallen steadily to 18.8 in 2015, a drop of 48 percent (CDC data). The decline is profound and continuous. This rules out some explanations from the start. Dr. New rightly dispatches Planned Parenthood’s claim that increased use of contraception, and the right kind of contraception, is largely responsible for fewer unintended pregnancies, and thus for the decline in abortion numbers: rates of unintended pregnancy over the years don’t back it up. His claim, however, that abortion numbers have fallen because of protective laws or changed hearts and minds needs closer examination. Academic research, he says, “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.” The question is, By how much? When we tally the reduction in abortion ratios that one would expect to see for these measures (which he has documented in his research), we get a total reduction in abortion ratios of 4.7 per 100 live births. The total reduction in abortion ratios from 1984 to 2015 was 17.6, however. (And this comparison assumes that these laws were all passed at some point in all of the CDC’s reporting states, which is not the case.) These laws save lives, and would save more lives if they were passed everywhere, but they are not driving the continuing drop in abortion ratios.
His second reason for the decline, changed hearts and minds, is intriguing, because it must be true in some sense, as women decide whether to abort or carry to term. If there is such a change, however, it is not reflected in public opinion polls. For years now, many have heralded polls ostensibly showing that the younger generation is more pro-life, or that more people consider themselves “pro-life.” Yet researchers from the American Enterprise Institute, who conduct an annual survey of previous polls on abortion, still report that there has been no significant shift in public opinion since the early 1970s. About 20 to 30 percent of the population are pro-choice, the same proportion are pro-life, and about half are in the middle. In May 2016, 29 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll said abortion should be legal in all circumstances, 50 percent said it should be legal in some circumstances, and 19 percent thought it should be illegal in all circumstances. “Substantial numbers of people tell the pollsters that abortion is an act of murder. They also say that the decision to have an abortion should be a personal choice.” (People may want to think of themselves as “pro-life,” but we can believe that there has been a true shift when a majority says that abortionists should go to jail.)
Perhaps, however, women who find themselves pregnant, and didn’t intend to be, are changing how they think of abortion and childbirth. There is ongoing discussion about “intention” among the technocrats who push “family planning” to women at risk of unintended pregnancy. They are challenged by the discovery that not all women plan these things or want to plan them. A woman who is taking some precautions not to become pregnant can actually be happy to find out that she is, especially if she is supported by her partner or those around her. (Those who focus on intention and planning seek to translate a woman’s imagined unhappiness with a future possible pregnancy into a plan for her fertility, that is, to make her over in their own image.) It may be that we are seeing the effects of fairly large-scale, social-psychological changes relating to pregnancy, abortion and childbirth, that we simply cannot discern.
In any case, Dr. New ends his list with “taking care of the material needs of pregnant women.” Here he is really on to something. In fact, the number of new pregnancy help centers has grown continuously while abortion ratios have declined. Heartbeat International, one umbrella organization for such centers, counted 23 new centers opening in 1973; by 2017 over 1,720 new centers had opened. (This is a partial count, as there are currently over 2,750 such centers. Some offer emotional, moral, spiritual, and practical help, some also provide limited obstetrical ultrasounds, and a smaller number are maternity homes.) The biggest one-year increase in centers recorded by Heartbeat was in 1985, the year after abortion ratios reached their peak, according to the CDC.
In a 1992 book, Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, Marvin Olasky suggested that abortion rates in the latter half of the 19th Century (almost double ours, incidentally) declined largely because of Christian philanthropy, especially maternity homes. It is quite likely that we are seeing the same thing today with pregnancy help centers.
The key role of the centers has been confirmed here in Pittsburgh, where Vision for Life has been running modest ad campaigns for local centers since late 2010. Abortion ratios from 2000 to 2010 averaged 32.6 per 100 live births in Allegheny County. From 2011 to 2017, the last year for which we have the numbers, the average was 26.2, a 20 percent decrease. (Of course, abortion ratios are falling everywhere. The difference, however, between the two periods for all other Pennsylvania counties was only 7 percent.) The effect of advertising is not surprising: a Charlotte Lozier Institute study in 2014 found that 54 percent of women either did not know if there were centers in their communities, or thought that there weren’t any. When women know about the centers, more of them choose not to abort.
We can’t prove (yet) that pregnancy help is the main thing driving the drop in abortion numbers in the U.S., but it is certainly the chief candidate for study. One thing we can assume: increased advertising for local centers will bring those declining numbers down further.
Chris Humphrey, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Vision for Life - Pittsburgh
Good News again this year!
There’s good news in the most recent Pennsylvania Abortion Report for 2017. Abortion numbers for the State have fallen again: 2.8% fewer than the year before (from 30,881 to 30,011). (All statistics come for the Pennsylvania Dept. of Health’s annual Abortion Reports. The interpretation is ours.)
Abortions to Pennsylvania residents only (as opposed to all abortions, including those performed on women from out of state) fell a little further – by 3.4% (from 29,214 to 28,234). In the ten years from 2008, when abortions reached their peak, to 2017, abortion numbers for residents have fallen 24.1% in PA.
Allegheny county gets mixed reviews
But The Abortion Ratio For Residents has fallen
What’s really important, however, are abortion ratios, that is, the number of abortions per 1,000 live births. Why? Because pregnancy rates are falling anyway. From 2008 to 2017, births in Pennsylvania went down 11,310, or about 8%. In this case, the question becomes, “Are abortion numbers going down relative to declining birth numbers?” This is the abortion ratio. If the number of abortions per 1,000 live births is lower from year to year, then we know that fewer women who were pregnant chose abortion each year.
Abortion numbers and ratios for Allegheny County residents went down 24% since we began advertising in 2011.
What else do we learn from the PA report?
Black women had 43% of abortions performed in PA, something that should exercise the hearts and minds of anyone who cares about the black community. As they are about 13% of the population, they are over-represented by two times in the abortion statistics. If black lives matter, then this has to change. Black pastors need to step up, and reassure women that God can and will forgive sexual sin -- the child is His good, natural gift -- and that He gives us sexual boundaries because He loves us.
88% of women who aborted in Pennsylvania in 2017 were unmarried. We know apart from the Report that women who cohabit are most at risk of abortion.
Over 61% of women who aborted had one or more previous live births. In other words, moms with one child or more were more likely than women with no children to have an abortion. It’s very likely that finances and the state of their relationships played a big part in these decisions.
When we put this together, we get the following picture: a woman (in many cases black), between the ages of 20 to 24, cohabiting, with one or more children. We know from other research that, as a group, the women most likely to abort when they discover that they have an unintended pregnancy are those in households with 200 to 300 times the federal poverty level. Though very poor women abort, too, more often it is those for whom pregnancy has complicated their lives: the boyfriend is threatening to leave, or he has lost his job; she can’t give up her job without losing their accommodation; and so forth. The problem is not one that can be solved simply with money. These women, and all women thinking about abortion, need to hear from the people at the pregnancy medical centers that they can make it, that they don’t have to abort, that God will provide and that they can trust in Him. She already has a child within her; killing him or her is no solution.
Repeat abortions (a woman’s second, third, fourth or more) accounted for over 47% of the total abortions to residents.
The best news here, however, is that first-time abortions in PA are in sharper decline than repeat abortions. From 2008 to 2017, first-time abortions declined 25%. Repeat abortions declined 20%.
What does this mean? With fewer first-time abortions each year, there will be even fewer repeat abortions in future, if the trends hold, which they should. This means that Big Abortion is facing a slow demise. When the number of clients showing up for abortions drops below a certain threshold, profitability is gone, and the abortionist has to shut down. That’s the future!
Many pro-life organizations make much of the evil of abortion, and there is no question that it is evil. But outrage and anger accomplish little, and there is much to encourage us: abortion numbers are falling, and they'll continue to fall. Advertising pregnancy help centers help them to fall faster, and that's our goal for the year ahead. We need to get the word out across America. We want to see more moms and babies saved from abortion in Allegheny County, in Pennsylvania, and in the U.S. May God help us as we do our best.
Abortion numbers are falling everywhere across the country, including Pennsylvania. What impact is our pro-life advertising in Allegheny County having on those numbers?
In previous calculations of how many lives have been saved since Vision for Life - Pittsburgh began advertising in 2011, I have used the actual Allegheny County numbers for the year before, instead of the projected ones if there had been no advertising (using the percentage reduction of the rest of the State.)
If I have lost you already, don’t give up.* The bottom line is, I estimate the total number of lives saved from 2011 to 2016 to be over 3,500!
Now, this is a general number, and hardly precise. And, “correlation is not causation.” Still, the gap between the two lines strongly suggests that advertising is making the difference, and reaching the abortion vulnerable.
Birth numbers in the rest of PA declined 2.6% from 2010 to 2016, but increased in Allegheny County by 2.6% (a difference of 5.2%).
Thank God that, through our efforts and those of the pregnancy medical centers, so many more women are choosing life for their babies!
Feel free to share this encouraging news!
* Here’s how I calculated the figures. We have actual, annual abortion numbers for all the counties, including Allegheny. What I needed were the projected numbers of abortions if Allegheny County’s reduction in abortions were the average of all the other counties’. So, for example, in 2012 there were 6,909 abortions, which was 11.6% fewer than 2011’s 7,820. The reduction in abortion numbers for all the other counties, however, was only 1.4%. If we used abortion numbers from the year before we advertised, 2010, as the baseline for all subsequent calculations, the expected number of abortions in 2012 in Allegheny County would have been 7,587 (1.4% fewer than the projected 2011 number, which was 7,697). So the difference between the projected 2012 figure of 7,587, and the actual number, 6,909, was 678. Here’s a chart showing the difference between actual and projected abortion numbers for the years 2011 to 2016.
Now some of the differences between projected and actual numbers may be due to other factors peculiar to Allegheny County, and some of the difference may be normal statistical variance between any one county and the rest (though it would vary up as well as down over the years). Say we’re out by 500, or even 800, for some reason -- this still leaves us with a very high number.
Pennsylvania's abortion numbers have been going down for years, and that's encouraging: fewer women doing harm to themselves (at least morally and spiritually) and fewer unborn children killed. The news is even better, however. PA started to record repeat abortions in 2008: the number of previous abortions a woman had when we she went for the current one: none, 1, 2, 3, and 4 or more. The results are below.
Note that first abortion numbers are going down faster than repeat abortion numbers. The reduction of first abortions from 2008 to 2016 was 23%; the reduction for repeat abortions was less than 18%. What does that mean? If it continues, it's the death spiral for the abortion business: as the number of women having their first abortion declines, the pool of those who might have their second, third, fourth, and so on, will get smaller still. If it were any other big business, they would see the handwriting on the wall. Fewer women are trusting that abortion is going to solve their problems, and there's no reason to think the trend will stop.
(Incidentally, it's not contraceptives that is reducing abortion demand; see my previous blog post on the possible explanations.)
Want to "stop abortion"?
Here’s an example. The text above the photo reads, “Pregnancy testing, ultrasound, STD testing -- all free. Get the help you need. Caring, confidential. There’s a center near you. Call today! Share for your friends.” Neighborhoods and phone numbers follow. Unique phone numbers through Heroic Media let us track call totals. This ad cost us $350. The ad appeared on 15,773 screens; 496 people clicked on the photo; 104 liked the ad; 28 liked the page; 2 made comments; 13 shared the ad post; and 8 made calls to a pregnancy medical center.
For each month in 2015, on average we spent $321 on “Pittsburgh Choices” ads, reached 28,948 screens at least 3 times in the month, and got 209 post “likes,” 16 “shares,” 46 page “likes, and 12 phone calls to pregnancy medical centers. The cost per call was $26. In the two years following, the costs of Facebook advertising went up, and the cost-per-call as well.
- Amount spent: White model – $298; Black model – $313
- “Actions”: White model – 622; Black model – 795 a month
- Post “likes”: White model – 138; Black model – 201
- Post “shares”: White model – 10; Black model – 18
- Page “likes”: White model – 32; Black model – 47
- Phone calls: White model – 6.8; Black model – 9.9
We moved from boosting posts to doing advertising through Facebook’s ad portal (“Manage Ads”). We began doing “carousel” ads on Facebook (several photos in sequence, which let us tell a story, for example, about going to a center, and getting the information and help needed), and eventually shifted to video.
We also changed our slogan to “Friends tell friends.” The ads are directed not to the woman facing an unintended pregnancy, but to her friends. About 40% of center clients are referred by friends. Facebook is a great venue for digitizing those referrals. Of course, women who have unintended pregnancies will see the ads, as will women who have had abortions. The implied audience, however, is invited to help other anxious women, something that most people are happy to do. Low-key, gentle, woman-centered, positive ads work.
There is currently a campaign by pro-choice activists to label pregnancy help centers “fake clinics.” Most women will not have heard of it, or of the “exposefakeclinics” website. While we can ignore the attacks and the false claims, it doesn’t hurt to encourage women to trust the centers by having the medical director appear in an ad (either a photo or a video). For this reason we ran an ad on Facebook in April 2018 for Choices Pregnancy Services featuring Dr. Rocco Adams, the Medical Director (https://youtu.be/3JaJAKzO-qI).
In 2016–17 we expanded the work that Women’s Choice Network had begun with the advertising agency Ad America. Brad Mandel of Ad America does “local search” optimization, or “Google Places” optimization, a comprehensive management of centers’ web presence so that the centers shows up when women search on Google for abortion in their area.
The success of advertising in Pittsburgh has been demonstrated by repeated campaigns of harassment and deception by pro-choice activists over the past couple of years. In the most recent campaign, in March and April of 2018, activists have been phoning Women’s Choice Network to ask to speak to the doctor (who is not on site, and has no reason to be), and have given many one-star reviews on Google Places (without having visited the centers), claiming that they are not “full-service women’s health centers” because they don’t perform abortions. The extent of this opposition reflects their realization that they are losing the public relations battle: people think pregnancy help is a good thing, and more and more women are choosing life.
Recommendations for those in pregnancy help centers
If possible, create a separate organization to advertise for your center, an organization with its own fundraising and budget. No matter what goes on with your expenses and fundraising, you want the advertising to continue, but it will be hard for your Board not to cut advertising if there’s any kind of financial squeeze. I’m convinced that, if your numbers go up, your supporters will rise to the challenge, if you present it clearly. People like helping women in need.
Ideally, find someone willing to lead this new group, and someone with church connections outside of the ones your organization has. You want to reach new donors. E.g., if your center is supported mostly by evangelicals, seek out Roman Catholic (or Orthodox) who are prominent in their pro-life commitments. You want people who don’t want just to make a statement, but to make a difference. They’re not always the same people. Let them create a new 501(c)(3), and collaborate with them on your advertising. Again, I’m happy to advise.
Whether you do your own advertising, or a separate groups does it, find ways to measure your results. We use state statistics on abortion and births. Use your center’s statistics, too. Donors and everyone else will be encouraged if you can show you are making a difference. Be transparent, even if you don’t see success.
We need to fear not failure, because you can always learn from failure, but the lack of initiative, the fear of failure. There are always nay-sayers who can see why something won’t work. Try things out over several months, and follow results closely. This is a long, slow battle.
Contact information and an ad resource
- Chris Humphrey – firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-418-6349
2. Joerg Dreweke, “New Clarity for the U.S. Abortion Debate: A Steep Drop in Unintended Pregnancy Is Driving Recent Abortion Declines,” Guttmacher Policy Review, Guttmacher Institute. Available online March 18, 2018, www.guttmacher.org/gpr/2016/03/new-clarity-us-abortion-debate-steep-drop-unintended-pregnancy-driving-recent-abortion, accessed April 17, 2018.
3. For a close examination of the question of the effect of contraception on unintended pregnancy and abortion rates, see the fact sheet, “Greater Access to Contraception Does Not Reduce Abortions,” on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/contraception/fact-sheets/greater-access-to-contraception-does-not-reduce-abortions.cfm, accessed May 21, 2018.
4. From Table 1 in William D. Mosher, Ph.D.; Jo Jones, Ph.D.; and Joyce C. Abma, Ph.D., “Intended and Unintended Births in the United States: 1982–2010,” National Health Statistics Reports, 55, July 24, 2012, www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr055.pdf, accessed March 2018.
5. Joerg Dreweke, op. cit.
6. “The likelihood of failure for any method use declined from 14.9% to 10.3% during this period [from 1995 to 2006–2010]” (Guttmacher Institute, “Failure Rates for the Most Common Contraceptive Methods Have Improved,” February 24, 2017, www.guttmacher.org/news-release/2017/failure-rates-most-common-contraceptive-methods-have-improved, accessed April 18, 2018).
7. The abortion ratios declined from 23.4 per 100 births to 21.0 (CDC), or from 28.5 to 26.8 (Guttmacher/CDC, author’s calculation – see footnote 1, above), from 2008 to 2012.
8. William D. Mosher, Ph.D., and Jo Jones, Ph.D., “Use of Contraception in the United States: 1982–2008,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_029.pdf, p. 15.
9. Jo Jones, Ph.D.; William Mosher, Ph.D.; and Kimberly Daniels, Ph.D., “Current Contraceptive Use in the United States, 2006–2010, and Changes in Patterns of Use Since 1995,” National Health Statistics Reports, No. 60, October 18, 2012, www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr060.pdf, p. 11. A more recent, short-term study found that “the rate of unintended pregnancy among women and girls 15 to 44 years of age declined by 18%, from 54 per 1000 in 2008 to 45 per 1000 in 2011,” and that “the percentage of unintended pregnancies that ended in abortion remained stable during the period studied (40% in 2008 and 42% in 2011)” (Lawrence B. Finer, Ph.D., and Mia R. Zolna, M.P.H., “Declines in Unintended Pregnancy in the United States, 2008–2011,” New England Journal of Medicine, March 3, 2016, http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsa1506575, accessed April 18, 2018). Even if their assessment is correct, and that is debatable, the time-frame is very short; abortion ratios were declining for decades before this period.
10. The annual numbers of openings of new pregnancy help centers were provided to the author by Jor-El Godsey, President of Heartbeat International, in March of 2018. The figures were aggregated in 2014. The author is responsible for the chart above. The graph does not indicate the number of centers in existence, as some proportion, perhaps 1 in 20, may have closed each year. The growth is impressive, in any case.
11. “Attitudes About Abortion,” compiled by Karlyn Bowman and Heather Sims, AEI Public Opinion Studies, January 2017, www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/ABORTION.pdf, accessed April 19, 2018.
12. Ibid., p. 3.
13. Charlotte Lozier Institute, May 23, 2018, https://lozierinstitute.org/how-the-legal-status-of-abortion-impacts-abortion-rates/, accessed June 12, 2018.
14. “Analyzing the Effect of Anti-Abortion U.S. State Legislation in the Post-Casey Era,” State Politics and Policy Quarterly, 2011, 11(1), p. 37, http://www.lifetechconference.org/slides/2012/New_2012_Handout_2.pdf, accessed June 12, 2018.
15. “Using Natural Experiments to Analyze the Impact of State Legislation on the Incidence of Abortion,” Catholic Social Science Review, 2009, 14: pp. 339–362, https://www.heritage.org/marriage-and-family/report/using-natural-experiments-analyze-the-impact-state-legislation-the; accessed June 12, 2018.
17. Using figures from the CDC Abortion Surveillance reports for those years.
18. New, “Using Natural Experiments to Analyze the Impact of State Legislation on the Incidence of Abortion."
19. Jones and Jerman, op. cit. The qualifier, “no strong evidence,” invites the query, “How strong is the evidence?”
20. See the chart from the Guttmacher Institute, in the text below, for the years 2011 to 2014.
21. Brenda Zurita, “Abortion on the wane: Pro-life laws, abstinence education making a difference,” Washington Times, February 3, 2014, www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/feb/3/zurita-abortion-on-the-wane, accessed April 17, 2018.
22. Jones and Jerman, op. cit., p. 17.
23. Ibid., pp. 22–23.
25. Jones and Jerman, op. cit., pp. 24.
26. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books.
27. Charlotte Lozier Institute, 2014.
Later this month (April 2018) I hope to do a video with a Medical Director from Women's Choice, not to address the false and malicious claims of the pro-abortion crowd, but just to reassure women that they get trustworthy information on pregnancy and abortion, from people who want to help them. Dr. Rocco Adams, whom I have known personally for years, is the Medical Director for Choices Pregnancy Services, in Coraopolis (but with mobile units travelling throughout our area). He speaks to women in this month's Facebook ad, assuring them that they and their friends can trust the people at Choices.
As you may know, Planned Parenthood is now pushing the argument that their contraceptive work has actually reduced unintended pregnancies in the very short term (2008-2011, and onward), and so has reduced the number of abortions. (They may offer rewards to employees who generate more abortions, but they know what sells in the political sphere.)
To make their case, they have to run down what many fine people -- like those at #ChoicesPregnancyServices and #WomensChoiceNetwork -- are doing in the pregnancy help centers. So, one Guttmacher piece says, "Antiabortion activists routinely fail to acknowledge that abortion declines can result from fewer unintended pregnancies, and instead pretend that any decline in the number of abortions is the result of women opting, or being compelled, to give birth rather than have an abortion. These activists often seize on declines in the abortion ratio—the proportion of all pregnancies ending in abortion—to showcase the supposed impact of their efforts."
The problem for Planned Parenthood is that the decline in abortion ratios is long-term, and can't be explained by changes in contraceptive media or rates of contraceptive usage. The conclusion of the most recent annual report on abortion from the CDC does not put much stock in the notion that Long-Acting Reversible Contraceptives -- LARCs -- can be credited with the recent decline in abortion ratios. A big increase in the use of the relatively effective LARCs, if there were one, might make PP's case statistically for the recent past -- but the increase would be short-term, while the decline in abortion ratios precedes it by decades.
While, for example, “between 2002 and 2006–2008, the percentage of women who had ever used emergency contraception rose from 4% to 10% (5.2 million)" and "the percentage who had ever used the contraceptive patch rose from 1% to 10% (5.3 million),” (1) “changes in contraceptive method choice and use have not decreased the overall proportion of pregnancies that are unintended between 1995 and 2008 . . ." (2). If unintended pregnancies remained more or less stable, while the ratios of abortions to live births went down, then more women whose pregnancies were unintended must have been choosing life.
Through it all, the ratios went down. Here's the updated graph showing the long-term and short-term pictures.
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.