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.