Abortion: The Big Lie and The Inconvenient Truth (Part 2)

Whenever you state an inconvenient truth to someone whose ideology provides them with a simple answer to even the most complex questions, you’re likely to hear one of several handy-dandy predigested glib responses. So it is with telling “pro-lifers” that government restriction is not an answer to abortion. Here are the knee-jerk retorts they most often offer.

Glib Response #1: “Well, if you’re not going to have laws restricting abortion, you might as well not have laws restricting anything.”

Aside from the fact that such a comment treats all questionable activities as equals — not only in moral magnitude, but in susceptibility to regulation– it also equates opposition to outlawing an activity with enthusiasm for engaging in it. (See, for example, the hostile punditry directed toward opponents of Arizona’s legislation supposedly designed to check illegal immigration.)  Many citizens — including many “pro-lifers” — would agree that the “war on drugs” has been an abject failure. Does this mean that they advocate acid orgies every weekend?

Glib Response #2: “Maybe we can’t eliminate abortions altogether by making them illegal, but we can at least reduce their numbers.”

Oh? How exactly would we know this? The best we can do is summon up highly inconclusive numbers from the past and assume not only that they’re perfectly accurate, but also that they’re perfectly indicative of the future. Look, for example, at this table of statistics covering the years from 1909 to 2010. One might point to these figures and draw attention to the fact that the estimated total for 1974 was more than double that of 1973, which was the year of the Roe Vs. Wade decision. Bingo! That proves the point, right?

Not so fast. You’ll also note that the estimated abortion rate (number per thousand females of child-bearing age) increased by only 3 percent, i.e. from 16.3 to 19.3. How is this discrepancy possible unless there was an enormous influx of such females during that time? And you might notice that the estimated total increased more than tenfold in 1943, even though there was no such landmark court case in 1942. Furthermore, you might observe that while the abortion rate increased rather steadily in the years prior to Roe Vs. Wade, it has  declined during most of the years since then, with a markedly consistent declining trend since 1981. The exception to that trend was in 2006 ; coincidentally, the previous year had seen what was then a record number of state restrictions against abortion.

Perhaps most revealing of all, observe that for the first five years for which an estimate is recorded (1926-1930) the total is 2 per year. Yes, two. Seriously? This in particular highlights the fact that what such tabulations really indicate is the difficulty of obtaining  accurate statistics about an action that is illegal. Was there really a jump in the number of abortions performed in 1974, or did people just feel safer admitting they’d occurred?

Furthermore, it would be naive to assume that what may have worked (or probably didn’t) 40 or more years ago would be effective now. We’ve had a couple of generations of females grown accustomed to the idea of reproductive choice, and you can’t put the tree back into the acorn. Especially now that technology and communications have advanced so unforseeably.  At the risk of sounding like a science fiction writer, I predict the time is coming when a safely self-administered home abortion will be possible for virtually anyone. What good will oppressive legislation do then? How far is the “limited government” crowd willing to go to ensure government monitoring of our reproductive lives? (If the government decrees that life begins at conception, should it also issue certificates of conception instead of birth certificates? Will it begin supervising sexual activity in order to ensure that these events are accurately documented?)

Whatever lessons we might draw from the past, let’s ponder what is going on right now. According to the Guttmacher Institute’s  examination of statistics worldwide ” legal restrictions on abortion do not affect its incidence”. In other words, there will be about the same number whether it’s legal or not. Which of course brings us to…

Glib Response # 3: “You can’t believe what Guttmacher says because they have a liberal agenda.”

Like many other organizations, the Guttmacher Institute often earns the dismissive designation of “liberal” just by not being right-wing — and by presenting information that right-wing extremists don’t want to hear. It doesn’t help that the Institute is affiliated with Planned Parenthood, one of the favorite whipping boys of right-wing extremism. According to “pro-lifers”, Planned Parenthood and Guttmacher and any other group that disseminates information about reproductive health must necessarily have a prime directive of promoting abortion.

But in fact Planned Parenthood prevents far more abortions than it provides. And The Annenberg Foundation, in evaluating sources of information, concludes that  “the Guttmacher Institute’s statistics are highly reliable” and further comments that “(t)he Guttmacher Institute’s empirical findings are widely cited with good reason and should be trusted.”  Wait, don’t tell me: Annenberg is a bunch of libruls too. Even if it was founded by a staunch “conservative” in the Reagan-Nixon mold.

In any case, nobody has ever produced better statistics than The Guttmacher Institute. If you don’t like their numbers, bring us some better ones and we’ll use ’em.

The bottom line is that we just don’t know what effect, if any, government prohibition has on the number of abortions performed; but we do know what effect it has on their quality. Those legendary anecdotes about botched surgeries performed by veterinary students, about coat hangars and Lysol in someone’s garage, about desperate teenagers dying tragically and horribly? They’re not just stories. They really happened. In far greater numbers than most people realize. Even many fanatical “pro-lifers” have an abortion tragedy in their family closets.

And right about this time is when we hear…

Glib Response # 4: “It’s their own fault. Nobody forced them to do it.”

True, it doesn’t have to happen. And doesn’t knowing that just make you feel all nice and smug and superior and tingly warm?

We also know that the way we can reduce abortions is through proper education and better availability of contraception. But many “pro-lifers” have a problem with these solutions. Contraception, they claim, is itself a form of abortion (another popular “pro-life” myth), and of course many oppose it on religious grounds. If so, that just means they need to work much harder on the education aspect.

But that’s a problem too. Many “pro-lifers” believe that teaching teens about sex just puts ideas into their heads that never would crop up otherwise. Many even manage to say this with a straight face. So instead, the ostrich approach is in vogue — the approach commonly known as abstinence-only sex “education”, which has been an unqulaified disaster.  The Republic of Texas, which the late Molly Ivins (herself a Texan) dubbed the “national laboratory for bad government”, has been a bold pioneer in instituting this (and other forms of) induced ignorance, and subsequently the teen sex rate has soared in that state. And the term “spit baby” has entered the lexicon, because many Texas teens have been convinced they became impregnated through oral sex.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t be “pro-life” (in any sense), and also pro-ostrich. Consciously or by default, we all must choose between facing facts and hewing to an ideology.  If “pro-lifers” wanted to show that they’re serious about stemming abortion, they’d address the problem like adults. Instead, they give us intrusive legislation, harassment and intimidation, accusatory and inflammatory rhetoric, murdered doctors, denial, indoctrination of children, and cutesy bumper stickers proclaiming how people supposedly care more about trees and spotted owls than they do about the “unborn”.

And, of course, plenty of lies.


  1. Major problem, if people started paying attention to real issues, rather than right wing red herrings, then politicians would have to actually get things done. They might have to address economic issues in realistic terms rather than say “if everything is privatised, then it will be better all around”.

    Better for who?

    I would also add that any true pro-life agenda has to address the rights of the living to decent health care, education, food, housing, and so on.

    One cannot just bring children into the world and hope that “god will provide for them”.

    Arte these people willing to help pay for raising the children in a manner that they will not be a burden to society?

  2. Rather than banning abortions through the courts and legislatures, I’d like to see my Christian brothers and sisters work to limit abortions by providing a home for every “unwanted” child out there. I’d like to see a system where families “can adopt in utero” through a court process. They’ll be responsible for all of the medical expenses for mom and the delivery, and when the baby is born, have full custody of the child. Think of it as a belated surrogacy agreement.

    But too many of them will say “Oh, I don’t have the resources to take on another child,” not considering that mom is in the exact same position.

    Then again, I’d like to see dad able to do the same thing. There is a disconnect concerning the rights of parents: Mom’s rights to the baby begin at conception, but dad’s rights don’t begin until birth. Mom can use government force to coerce dad to pay for a child he might not have wanted. But dad has to pay for his own attorney if mom interferes with custody.

    It’s a complex issue, I know, and I’ll never see my ideal. But I can dream.

    • You have noble objectives, but this would only prevent abortion in some (relatively few, I’d guess) cases. It isn’t always just a matter of not wanting to have a child. Sometimes it’s a matter of not wanting to be pregnant. And really, this may be hard for us males to understand, but even though an abortion is a traumatic experience, giving up a child (even an unplanned and unwanted one) is often more so.

  3. The original draft of this post said “tight-wing extremists” instead of “right-wing extremists”. I have corrected it. But only after a bit of deliberation. 🙂

  4. POP,

    Of all the bone-headed arguments I have ever heard, the belief that common and effective forms of preventing pregnancies are somehow just considered another way to murder the unborn or avoid responsibilities involved with having sex, makes the least amount of sense to me.

    The pill, in particular, only prevents a sperm from fertilizing an egg, and it seems self-evident that only after this happens and, at least a biological process that can lead to life begins, that there is no murder possible merely by preventing a process that has not even begun yet?

    I know some devout Catholics, who absolutely do not believe in any kind of contraception other than perhaps the rhythm method to prevent pregnancy. Although most of these types I know are special and loving people, who don’t even desire to control anyone else politically, I just can’t understand the moral myopia that motivate their beliefs. I once read a comment on the PLAYBOY forum, whose author pointed out that, the ultimate extension of such logic would support the idea that if any man passes any woman on the street, and either one of them (or both) feels sexually attracted by the other, that they are preventing the life of a child, by not immediately stripping and engaging in sexual intercourse then and there. This may sound amusing and absurd, but I really see no difference between this kind of reasoning and the idea that a simple condom or a prescription for the pill, is a way of murdering when simply preventing a a biological process from beginning?

    Also those who smile smugly and say it doesn’t have to happen, need to realize that there is no such thing as “legitimate rape,” or evidence that the trauma of being raped can naturally prevent pregnancy from occurring. I would also think that Christians who value the qualities of love and compassion, would not be so quick to condemn those who seek abortions as being ignorant sinners in need of being set straight. Can any of us even imagine being the victim of a violent and personal intrusion like rape, and then not feel a natural aversion to the idea of being forced to carry the symbol of their rapist’s power over them for nine months, and understandably seeking to have it aborted at an early stage of development. Yes, some women do choose to have such a child anyway, but that should not make us blind to the suffering of women who cannot help but feel repulsed by their pregnancies (resulting from rape), nor should it allow us not to try putting ourselves in their shoes and admitting that moral decisions are not always as simple as the difference between black and white.

    As you say, desperate girls (and adult women) are going to seek abortions anyway (even the coat hanger in a veterinarian’s garage variety) because they obviously feel repulsed and violated by the actions of a rapist. So, if we can provide safe and professional ways for these girls NOT to risk their own lives doing what they will want to do anyway, why not provide that avenue of choice for them?

    It’s also strange when people say that even reducing the number of aborted babies by passing legislation will at least, prevent (some) pregnancies, and that if we do’n’t act to pass laws against abortions then we might as well not pass laws against anything. strangely the same conservatives who often share such views, are usually very vocal advocates for reducing the governments intrusion into many other personal decisions. And, would I be right to assume that many 2nd amendment advocates also make no sense when they say that passing laws will not end gun crimes, and then insist that the government needs to outlaw abortions, as a definite way to discourage that type of alternative? I am assuming, at least, that many 2nd Amendment fanatics are also completely opposed to legal abortions, and also may not approve of certain types of preventative measures like using condemns or the pill—talk about logical contradictions?

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