The Politics of Interpreting a Drop in Abortion Rates

Posted in: Politics

The Centers for Disease Control recently reported that women had 24% fewer abortions in 2015 (the year of the last completed survey) than in 2006. Planned Parenthood has attributed the dropping rate to an increased availability of contraception. Pro-life/anti-abortion activists attempting to ban the procedure might want to offer an alternative hypothesis, perhaps that the lower rate results from regulations of and prohibitions against abortion. How might we best understand potentially differing understandings of the reduced rate?


Pro-life Perspective

Let us begin by expanding the list of possible explanations for the decline in abortion rates. Starting at one end of the spectrum, we could hypothesize that both women and men have been listening to the arguments of pro-life activists and have come to take the position that killing an embryo or a fetus is an immoral act, comparable or equivalent to murder. On this understanding, pro-life activists have persuaded the people who would previously have terminated their pregnancies to keep them instead and thereby to “choose life.” If that interpretation is right, then pro-life activists would feel good about, and want to continue, their persuasive advocacy.

The next possibility, from the pro-life perspective, might be that the women and men who come into contact with pro-life advocacy remain unconvinced. Or perhaps they agree with the pro-life message but find themselves feeling desperate and therefore willing to undergo a procedure that they believe is immoral. For them, the pro-life community might regard it as necessary to stigmatize abortion and to regulate and prohibit it as well. Making arguments would be insufficient.

Stigmatizing abortion could deter women from undergoing a procedure that might require assistance from the very friends or family with whom women might be ashamed to share their predicament. And a stigma could also deter doctors from practicing abortion medicine in sufficient numbers to support the population of women who want to terminate. In some states, for instance, only a handful of clinics (or sometimes only one clinic) provides the procedure, because obstetricians/gynecologists and the nurses in this field prefer to avoid harassment from opponents of the procedure.

Regulating and prohibiting abortion work hand in hand with stigmatization to drive potential patients away from the abortion option as well. The more difficult it is to practice abortion medicine without confronting daily hostility, the more inclined a doctor or nurse will be to just avoid it altogether. And that leaves the patient less able to procure the treatment that she wants.

When you go to a doctor and ask for a particular service, you want to hear “yes, we do that here; let me just get you the paperwork.” The last thing you want to hear in response to your request is “no, we do not do that here, and the closest center for that service is six hours from here; also, you need to visit that place once for “informed consent” (finding out that there are alternatives to the procedure) and then wait at least twenty-four hours and return for the actual service that you seek.” At that point, you could feel too discouraged to do what you had previously wanted to do.

We have good reason to conclude that the pro-life community relies on stigma and regulation to support its efforts to reduce the abortion rate. If advocates could simply persuade their targets not to have an abortion because abortion is wrong, there would be no need to erect obstacles in the path of providers and their patients. The obstacles manage to stop abortions that women and their doctors truly want. We prohibit or otherwise place obstacles in the path of behavior in which we believe people would otherwise engage.

Pro-choice Perspective

It is not only the pro-life activist that has a perspective, of course. The pro-choice activist—including Planned Parenthood—could understandably offer two very different interpretations of the drop in abortion rates. The one it has taken is to say that women have had better access to contraception and have therefore experienced many fewer unwanted pregnancies. The evidence seems to provide some support for this claim. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and women who never start an unwanted pregnancy never have to face the often-difficult choice of whether or not to take the pregnancy to term.

An alternative interpretation of the drop in abortion rates is that women are confronting the obstacles that pro-life activists have placed in their path. They have run up against the combination of regulations, prohibitions, and a resulting inaccessibility of abortion providers that pro-life activists helped establish.

The second of these alternatives would represent a story of blame. The pro-life activists have made abortion so difficult to obtain that women are remaining pregnant against their will. The painful side of this narrative, from a pro-choice perspective, is that the people they would be blaming are now in charge. The U.S. Supreme Court is as poised as it has been at any time since 1973 to overturn Roe v. Wade. Attributing the abortion drop to people like Justice Brett Kavanaugh (whose opinions as an appeals court judge were hostile to abortion rights) would therefore represent a mix of surrendering agency over the situation and giving opponents a road map of how they can continue to succeed in suppressing reproductive autonomy.

The access-to-contraception story, by contrast, is one of triumph, much like the hypothetical pro-life story (of persuasion, stigma, and regulation) is one of triumph for abortion opponents. Planned Parenthood has provided access to contraception for many women who might otherwise have been unable to afford it. If women have fewer abortions because of birth control (rather than because of pro-life legislative victories), then Planned Parenthood has helped women control their reproductive lives. This story also allows pro-choice advocates to celebrate the drop in the abortion rate without thereby implying that there is something wrong with having (or with providing) an abortion. People have recently taken issue with Bill and later Hillary Clinton’s statement from years ago that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. Given that abortion is at the very least a physically uncomfortable procedure for women, contraception is the better option no matter what one thinks of the morality of terminating a pregnancy.


There is, at least potentially, room for some consensus in the story of fewer abortions, if contraception accounts for the drop. Pro-choice activists can take comfort in the apparently-increased ability of women to free themselves of unwanted pregnancies by avoiding them altogether. And pro-life activists can rejoice in the fact that because of increased access to contraception, fewer women are taking the lives of their unborn children through abortion. Everyone wins, right?

Not so fast. When I read that Planned Parenthood had attributed the drop in abortion to contraception, I could not help but smile. The statement felt a bit like trolling. Some not-insignificant number of abortion opponents would have, at best, mixed feelings about contraception achieving a reduction in the abortion rate. Some number of pro-life activists believe that people who have sexual intercourse should be ready to welcome a pregnancy and a birth. Conversely, such people often believe that anyone who feels unready for a child should avoid having sex.

Though not strictly a religious position, the notion that sex must link to pregnancy and birth does resonate quite a bit with religion. The Catholic Church still regards the placement of artificial barriers between intercourse and pregnancy as sinful. Some other Christian denominations (and other religions as well) view sex outside of marriage as licentious and wrong, though the hook to mandatory pregnancy and labor may be less explicit. Growing up as a religious Jew, I learned that a woman is impure (and untouchable by Jewish men) for almost half of every month, with the “pure” half corresponding to the most fertile part of her cycle. And though I know less about Islam, my impression is that it frowns upon premarital sex in some of the same ways as Ultra-Orthodox Judaism does.

One could offer a sociobiological account of stigmatizing premarital sex in general and the women who engage in such relations in particular. This account might hold that earlier generations of humans had difficulty controlling their fertility, other than through abstinence and infanticide. People who wanted to avoid having children could not do so reliably if they were also having sexual intercourse.

In this account, men tend to be somewhat indifferent to their fertility, because they do not immediately bond to their offspring in the ways that women do. Walking away is therefore easier for men. In addition, pregnancy plainly imposes a weightier physical burden on women than on men, so the risk of pregnancy might not deter men. It is therefore up to women to prevent men from siring children whom they are likely to disregard. Women can do this by withholding sex until a man has committed to them and their future children through marriage.

This sociobiological account of male and female sexuality maps on well to some religious visions of waiting for the wedding night. A very devout religious person who believes that contraception is permissible might nonetheless reject the idea that a drop in abortion rates resulting from contraception is unadulterated good news. Such ambivalence results from the fact that contraception not only prevents pregnancy but also lowers the “cost” of premarital sex. We rarely hear pro-contraception messaging from pro-life groups.

A number of years ago, I attended the lecture of a speaker from Feminists For Life. In response to a question, the speaker explained that the group takes no position on birth control. That a pro-life group would refrain from endorsing a means of preventing unwanted pregnancies and therefore of preventing abortions as well tells us that some pro-life opposition to abortion is about more than abortion. For at least some proportion of the movement, it is about premarital abstinence, and it is about birth. By contrast to pro-choice advocates, who regard contraception as a baseline and abortion as a backup plan, a pro-life advocate may consider abstinence as the baseline and birth as the backup plan.

One question that pro-life advocates would need to address in their abstinence education is how married couples can avoid having children. We know from, among others, extremely devout Catholics, Jews, and Muslims that in the absence of a plan to avoid procreating, women can carry and birth between ten and, in rare cases, over 20 babies during their childbearing years. Though this idea contradicts stereotypes, many of the women who have abortions turn out to be married women. For the majority of them who prefer to avoid having 10-20 babies, contraception would represent an essential part of avoiding abortion. Yet the narrative of promiscuous, meaningless sex followed by abortion largely ignores the needs, indeed, the very existence, of married women.

My Interpretation of the Drop in Abortion Rates

My own pet theory about why women are having fewer abortions is not exactly accessible contraception or abstinence plus birth. It is that a very large number of the people who might ordinarily be having sex with one another are instead masturbating to cheap and easily accessible pornography. Not that long ago, people in search of pornography might have had to (a) go to a pornographic theater in the red-light district of their city or town, or (b) go to a video rental store and walk up to the cashier, X-rated film in tow.

People can now find plenty of free pornography, right on their smartphones. The availability of this material has apparently had an impact on people. According to Jon Ronson, author of The Butterfly Effect, some male heterosexual actors in pornography need to look at pornography on their own smartphones to become aroused for sex scenes with female porn stars who are standing, naked, right in front of the men as they stare at their screens.

If sex with actual porn stars cannot compete with internet porn on an iPhone, then sex with unenhanced, real people may seem demanding and unrewarding compared to a date with Pornhub. A scene in pornography will rarely disappoint, and when it does, another pornographic scene is just a click or a tap away.

If I am right about this theory, then the drop in the abortion rate is not about “abstinence” in any religiously acceptable sense. When Joycelyn Elders, the first African American surgeon general, proposed talking with teens about masturbation as an alternative to teen sex, President Clinton asked her to resign. (The jokes about how Clinton might have benefitted from General Elders’ advice write themselves.) This story, of course, has nothing to do with affordable and accessible contraception.

A reduction in abortion rates resulting from Pornhub and its ilk would support a story of people enjoying the novelty of new faces and bodies without the downsides that accompany promiscuous sexual encounters. From a negative standpoint, for Pornhub to hold such a place in our society could exemplify the replacement of interpersonal relationships, both platonic and sexual, with a cold screen that trains everyone to require greater stimulation than ordinary human encounters ordinarily provide.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if fewer women were having abortions because more men were watching porn? It is safe to say that no one involved with the porn trend is motivated by the wish to reduce abortion rates. Not the people who masturbate to images on their screens. Not the purveyors of the material. And certainly not the advocates of abstinence and the sanctity of life. If I am right, we may be observing yet another instance of the law of unintended consequences.

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