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Abortion: The Debate Rages On

jw_2008-3_72dpi_rgb.jpgAbortion Politics Isn't Saving Lives
by John Whitehead
November 10, 2008
Abortion has been a hot-button political issue since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, which has resulted in more than 46 million abortions. Over the past three decades, pro-abortion and pro-life groups have raised and poured millions, if not billions, of dollars into political campaigns and legal battles aimed at furthering their agendas.
This year's election season was no exception, with referendums in several states to ban abortion and establish legal personhood for unborn children--all of which were soundly defeated. Unfortunately, the politicizing of abortion has done little to actually help women deal with the crisis of an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy.

The Guttmacher Institute provides some sobering statistics: every year, more than a million pregnancies end in abortion; the majority of abortions (88%) take place during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy; 57% of abortions are obtained by women in their 20s; roughly one-third of all women in the U.S. will have an abortion during their reproductive lifetime; 86% of women who have abortions are unmarried.

The majority of women obtaining abortions are poor or low-income. When asked to explain their decision to have an abortion, almost three-quarters say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or other responsibilities. About three-quarters say they cannot afford to have a child, and almost half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.

These numbers should speak volumes to anyone who claims to truly care about women and children. Here's what they say to me: whether or not Roe v. Wade is ever overturned, and the likelihood of that happening is low, the only way to effectively prevent abortions right now is to ensure that pregnant women have viable alternatives to abortion. In other words, rather than spouting platitudes about choice or religion, we need to use our money and time to help women faced with a difficult, life-changing decision. This is the time to do it because a life-affirming cultural shift is taking place in America.

Abortion rates are presently at their lowest level in 30 years. At the same time, the way Americans view pregnancy, and consequently abortion, seems to be changing, at least culturally and socially. And it apparently has little to do with politics or legislative efforts to outlaw abortion. Developing medical technology may, in part, be driving a change in cultural attitudes. For instance, cutting-edge in-utero surgeries, along with the increased use of ultrasound, are conceivably providing a connection and relationship with a unique developing life. When abortion was legalized in 1973, most people had little understanding of fetal development. The proliferation of ultrasound images from the womb has lifted that veil.

Life-affirming films are now in vogue. Juno (2007), Children of Men (2006), Bella (2006), Waitress (2007) and Knocked Up (2007) are among a growing list of movies in which women faced with unintended pregnancies choose to have the babies. Although they're born into chaotic, far-from-ideal conditions, the popularity of these films seems indicative of a cultural longing for children.

This cultural trend has been building for years. For example, in the early 1990s, 46% of the respondents in a CBS New York Times poll said that abortion was murder. The age group most likely to voice that opinion ranged from 18 to 29. Also during that time, the Center for Population Options held a series of focus groups to explore teen attitudes toward abortion. Their findings revealed that teens, regardless of race, sex or residence, associated abortion with death.

There are also other factors that point to the fact that the country is on the cusp of something significant. For example, the growing interest in environmental issues is rooted in a concern for the world that will be left to younger generations. There's also the trend toward adoption and child-rearing epitomized by celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. And, of course, there's the recent baby boom: 4.3 million babies were born in 2006, the largest number of children born in 45 years.

From a practical perspective, it has also been economically more feasible to have a child--until recently, that is. There is no way to overstate the toll a child takes on one's finances. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the annual cost of raising a child is between $10,930 and $12,030. For someone already in the lower income bracket, the decision to have a child most often becomes a choice between survival and abject destitution. However, with the economy in decline, we could very well see an increase in abortions. As an article on a medical website recently pointed out, the last four recessions in the U.S. have been followed by a dip in the number of babies born each year.

So where do we go from here? How do we build on this positive social and cultural shift toward children?

We need to recognize that no matter how strongly one feels about the abortion issue, we're not getting anywhere by politicizing it. If Christians, in particular, truly believe in saving lives and helping the poor, they need to put their money where their mouths are. Just imagine if even a portion of the $102 billion donated to religious institutions in 2007 were put toward private programs designed to help women, especially poor women, find alternatives to abortion.

Furthermore, both sides need to stop acting as if the abortion debate has a nine-month time limit. For pro-choice groups, abortion is the end of the story. Likewise, for many pro-life groups, a pregnancy that ends with a baby is the end of the story. But that's a large part of the problem because, for the woman who chooses not to have an abortion, it's just the beginning.

Thus, if people who claim to be pro-life are truly concerned about saving the life of an unborn child, they need to take responsibility for that life and commit to caring for that child as long as it takes. That means ensuring that the mother-to-be has a job, a home, good medical care, counseling, child care and the means to raise that child in a safe and healthy environment. At the same time, groups that claim to be pro-family need to be pro-children.
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Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book The Change Manifesto (Sourcebooks) is now available in bookstores and online. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org

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