There was this sign I used to hold as a kid when we went to pro-life rallies, which typically consisted of long lines of families standing on the sidewalk. It said, like all the other signs said, “Stop Abortion Now.” Once, when I was nine, some guy jumped out of a van with a television camera and asked why I was holding the sign. I looked at the ground, embarrassed. “Well,” I said tentatively “Because I think God would want us to stand up for the little babies.”
I still think that in an ideal world, there would be no abortion whatsoever. None. Oddly enough, I think you could get just about everybody to agree on this. Even if you don’t believe that humanity begins at conception, as (apparently) St. Augustine did not, even if you don’t think the Bible equates abortion with homicide, as conservative Jews do not, and even if you’re neutral about the moral implications of accidental pregnancy, it’s still not a choice that you want to ever have to make. Maybe you make it to save your own life. Maybe you make it because you’re 17 and your parents are going to disown you. Maybe you make it because you can’t afford to feed another person. Maybe you make it because you have no idea who the father is. None of these are particularly wonderful realities to be faced with, and probably, you’re fully aware that if you could change the reality, then you wouldn’t have to make this decision.
Back when I was nine, I wanted people to outlaw abortion. I had Stop Abortion Now club in my room a couple of times, where I talked about writing strongly-worded letters and opinion pieces on the subject. I composed my will on a sheet of legal paper and declared that half my bank account should go to the Right To Life in the event of my untimely demise. I mean, I was only nine (or so) years from having had the possibility of that being done to me, and that was kind of appalling, especially as a kid who had not been planned. I thought making it illegal would take care of it.
This last week, a full 21 years later, I got curious and started doing actual research as to whether this was true. Apparently, it’s not. Statistically, making it illegal doesn’t decrease the rate of abortion. In many countries where it’s prohibited or highly restricted, in fact, the abortion rates are quite a bit higher than the United States. Consider this extensive compilation of abortion rates by country, for example.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise. People do things that are illegal all the time; that’s why an entire stadium will smell like pot at a concert. That’s why there are speeding tickets and jails and cops and lawyers and judges.
If you seriously want to stop abortion, you have to change the baseline realities that lead to abortion. So, let’s consider the places that have the lowest instances of abortion. First on the list: the Netherlands. Yes, that’s right. Pretty much the most liberal country on the planet has the lowest rate of abortion on the planet. Ironic, isn’t it?
Well, not really. For one thing, the Netherlands is also one of the most egalitarian countries on the planet, especially when it comes to gender roles. This is true even though many Dutch women are still stay-at-home mothers and the Dutch are still very family-oriented. But when, as a woman, you know your voice counts, you also know that your “no” supersedes his “yes,” and hence, you can refuse him if you want — even if he’s an authority figure.
Contraception is also widely available in the Netherlands, and people expect you to use it — you’re basically considered an idiot if you have unprotected sex unless you’re trying to have a child. This goes for many Western European countries where abortion rates are low, and this doesn’t necessarily make these countries less monogamous or more likely to engage in sex earlier. French women, for example, are actually more monogamous than American women, as it turns out.
The baseline reality that often leads to abortion is a disconnect between theoretical belief and what actually happens. Take the highly Catholic country of Peru, where abortion is outlawed in most cases — it has an exponentially higher abortion rate than Western Europe or even America. Consider the abortion rate of the predominantly Catholic country Chile, where not only is abortion illegal, but divorce is as well. Heck, take America. Apparently, 65% of abortions are performed on those claiming to be Christians — and American Evangelical Christians are hugely opposed to premarital sex, at least in theory. Which is probably why they aren’t using contraception. Because, you know, it’s less bad if it’s not premeditated.
At least until you realize you’re pregnant, and that there’s no way you can be pregnant without ruining your life and what everybody thinks of you. And then what do you do?
Faced with these kinds of statistics, you often get people saying that what we really need is to just start making an example of unwed mothers, who obviously didn’t take sex seriously enough, and return to the good old days when Family Values really counted for something. Only I have yet to find an era where this actually worked. Punishing unwed mothers resulted in systematic infanticide in Victorian England, for example. In the colonies and in early American history, single mothers were punished more harshly than the men who sired their children, though this somehow did not stop men from siring illegitimate children, sometimes with slaves. In the 1940s and 1950s, single mothers could be forced into places like the Magdalene Laundries — or merely kept out of sight and coerced into relinquishing their children — and their offspring were sometimes subjected to cruelty or sexual abuse, as in the case of the Duplessis Orphans. Even the combination of making abortion illegal and the widespread practice of something like female genital mutilation, which makes sex painful for women, does not prevent abortion, as evidenced by Kenya, where about 300,000 illegal abortions are performed every year — a per-woman rate about four times higher than the per-woman rate in the Netherlands.
In Kenya, interestingly enough, “Men are the decision makers in society, and this trickles down even to sexual issues. Men are the ones to decide how and when to have sex,” says Jean Kaggi, Chairwoman of the Protecting Life Movement of Kenya. Which brings us back to the egalitarian thing. Places with high abortion rates tend to be more hierarchical, which means, overall, that men make the decision to have sex and women are the ones punished for it, especially in the case of illegal and dangerous abortions. In fact, the countries with the highest rates of abortion seem to have a perfect storm of hierarchical gender roles, limited access to contraception, and poor sex education. Sometimes this occurs where abortion is highly restricted, as in Latin America, or it may occur where it is barely restricted at all, as in Eastern Europe — but in general, a reputable team of researchers has recently found that “Restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates.” They even go so far as to suggest that the opposite may be true.
So how does one stop abortion, then? It will not be accomplished by politicians placing legal sanctions on it. It will not be accomplished by religious institutions placing moral sanctions on it, at least not combined with sanctions on gender equality and contraception. Based on the evidence, and on basic logic, it will best be accomplished by allowing people to take full responsibility for their sexuality and fertility.
By this, I do not mean that the official line should be “don’t have sex, ever, unless you, as a married person, fully intend to procreate or are willing to accept that procreation may be a result of your action.” First of all, not everyone believes non-procreational sex is wrong, and this tends to balance out the logic that abstinence (and the luck to not get raped) is the only fail-proof method of birth control. Not everyone — in fact, the vast majority of Americans — is actually willing to wait for marriage to have sex.
And even if you do wait, like I did, there’s no guarantee that the person you marry is going to be around in the long term. This means that even if you did everything “right” and have the self-control of a high-wire artist, you could still end up as a single mother facing a less than ideal future if you haven’t been using some form of birth control. Which, personally, I used. But I know too many divorced and separated women who are, or have been, single mothers through no real fault of their own to be smug about this.
What this type of responsibility requires is honesty with yourself: what you intend to do, what you’re willing to do, what you will not do. It requires that you be willing, and able, to discuss these things with your partner if and when you have one. It requires that you, as a sexual creature, be educated in contraceptive use, the inherent risks of sex, how (and why) procreation works, and how to respond when you’re faced with a situation you’re not comfortable with. This type of responsibility does not hide in female “weakness” (I’m a girl, so it’s a guy’s job to take care of me and to make the hard decisions) or male “weakness” (I’m a guy, so it’s the girl’s job to say no and make sure she doesn’t tempt me). It doesn’t hide behind the beliefs of a larger body of people. It doesn’t lie or coerce; usually, people can tell when you’re making something seem worse or better than it is — at least when they start doing their own research. This is exactly the type of education and responsibility that is prevalent in places like the Netherlands where abortion is most rare.
It also requires that you, male or female, have access to and be willing to use contraception (correctly) if you’re not ready to have a kid but you are willing to get jiggy with it. There are a whole slew of options, and more on the horizon.
This is not an idealistic approach so much as a pragmatic approach. However, I do think that, paradoxically, if you are willing to take responsibility for your own sexuality, and its potential consequences on yourself and other people, you may actually wait longer to have sex. You may not wait until marriage, depending on your belief system. But you’ll wait until you’re sure.
And if now that you’ve gone through all this (and possibly done your own research through credible sources to verify it), you’re thinking: it doesn’t matter if it actually decreases abortion, we should still make it illegal in order for punishment to occur, then I don’t think you should consider yourself pro-life. If you think the horrors of back-ally abortion-related maternal death are a more appropriate way to deal with abortion rates than education and birth control, in spite of what statistics actually tell us, then don’t call yourself pro-life. Just come out and own your point of view. You want the rest of the world to be punished if they don’t think just like you do, believe what you believe, and keep it in their pants unless you say it’s OK. And you really don’t care how many abortions are done, as long as you don’t have to see them and you can condemn those who have them.