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What If We Could Reduce Abortions Without Changing Public Opinion?


Michael New and I are engaged in a discussion (here and here) on what has brought down abortion rates from their heights in the early 1980s to 18.8 per hundred live births in 2015, a figure lower than that of 1973, the year Roe v. Wade was passed. Despite his claims, I am not “downplaying” the role of education and legislative reform in this: my intention is to kindle interest in what I think is driving down those rates––the proliferation of pregnancy help centers––and to encourage their support.

Education and legislative reform have their place, and are no doubt making a contribution where they are found, but we have no strong evidence that either are driving this decline. When we advertise pregnancy help, as we have done in Pittsburgh, we see the ratios fall farther, which inclines one to think that the key role of these centers has been overlooked in our focus on changing the laws.

We Can Handle the Facts (And the Lack of Them)

We need to be honest and realistic in assessing what is happening with abortion numbers. The decline of abortion ratios cited in my first Federalist article is relatively gradual and continuous––the slight peaks and troughs are the “noise” of what looks like a steady “signal.” Is there a key factor, or a few key factors, that are continuous in operation from the beginning?

In my first article I suggested that we may be seeing an ongoing social-psychological shift in the minds of generations of young, pregnant women regarding pregnancy, childbirth, and abortion. This might be a shift we cannot gauge, but whose effect is that fewer and fewer of them are seeking abortions.

One factor in this shift might be personal knowledge of post-abortive women, a knowledge that disinclines a pregnant woman from following the path of someone she knows or hears about. This might have been a factor from the early 1970s on, so it can’t be discounted as not present throughout the period of this decline. Would it have increasing effects on abortion ratios, relative to their decline, however? That seems unlikely, but we simply don’t know. And so it goes with much of our speculation.

Public Opinion Has Not Seriously Shifted in Our Favor

Inasmuch as we do know about public opinion, we cannot say the same about it. New claims that “Gallup data clearly indicates that since the mid-1990s, there has been both a long-term and durable increase in the percentage of Americans who identify as ‘pro-life.’” One of those new converts to the cause, of course, would be the president of Planned Parenthood, Dr. Leana Wen, who recently said that “being pro-choice is…being pro-family…being pro-life.”

It is somewhat encouraging to know that more people like to think of themselves as pro-life, but most of this can be dismissed as shallow self-regard: see the relatively level lines in the graph of the Gallup poll responses to the question, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances or illegal in all circumstances?” There is simply no real trend here.

This criticism applies to New’s confidence in the educational impact of abortion regulations as well: where is the evidence of an effect on public opinion? It is true that the laws have a measurable impact on abortion ratios. So in Pennsylvania, the abortion ratio dropped an outsized 12.3 percent the year after the Abortion Control Act was finally implemented in 1993. The law, however, does not explain the continuing drop in abortion ratios, or the fact that abortion ratios had already fallen by over 27 percent from 1981 to 1993.

What of New’s claim that the General Social Survey (GSS) found “long-term gains in pro-life sentiment”? The opposite claim could be made, as one analyst found that “more people” in the 2014 GSS survey “support legal abortion for any reason, no matter why a woman wants it. About 35 percent held that view in the 1970s – but the number has risen to 45 percent in 2014.”

What of his claim that young adults were the demographic most sympathetic toward legal abortion until 2000, when they became the most opposed? A close examination of these figures from the GSS show that the change is very slight, and can’t be compared to the 48 percent reduction in abortions per 100 live births (1984–2015).

In a Quinnipiac poll of 2017, the 18 to 35 age group was more in favor of abortion as “legal in all cases” than any other demographic group, by 3 percent, and “legal in most cases,” by 4 percent. It is becoming common to observe that we really don’t have a solid grasp of what Americans think about abortion, nor of any trends.

Pro-life education is important––how many of us would be pro-life without it?––but not because we can see that it’s changing public opinion as a whole. A local pregnancy medical center director told me that they still commonly hear women say, as they look at their unborn children on the ultrasound screen, “I had no idea.”

Can We Change Things Without Changing Public Opinion?

So why does public opinion matter, and why do we want to change it? It may be that we can’t help ourselves: if we were silent, we feel, “the very stones would cry out.” Perhaps we think that, if only the majority of those we know could see the moral horror that is abortion, they would not have abortions, and we could change the laws and end abortion?

This is what we really want, but we need to come back to earth here: we won’t end abortion, or abolish abortion as such, any more than we could end bank robbery, drunk driving, or spousal abuse simply with laws. Similarly, instead of talking about “a culture of life,” it’s time that we ask, where have people actually created this “culture”? Perhaps we can contribute to it.

What if we can reduce abortion numbers without changing the public mind on abortion? What if we can so reduce abortion numbers, or the demand for abortion, that it becomes politically much easier to criminalize the work of abortionists and protect unborn children? (This, we can assume, would have a big impact on dwindling abortion numbers, although our success, again, would lack the eschatological finality of the slogans.) A shift of attention to making pregnancy help better known would be a strategic move, not a denial of the importance of laws.

Public Ambivalence Gives Us An In

Do the polls give us a clue as to why pregnancy help might be the reason for those dropping ratios? The American Enterprise Institute survey I cited in the earlier article points out that, over the years, “substantial numbers of people tell the pollsters that abortion is an act of murder. They also say that the decision to have an abortion should be a personal choice.”

Similarly, people (and not just politicians) will say that they are personally pro-life, but that they can’t “impose their morality” on others. Ramesh Ponnuru observed somewhere that whoever is perceived as imposing on the other side in the struggle over abortion loses.

We saw this in Pennsylvania with former governor Tom Corbett, whose proposed bill requiring that a woman be offered the opportunity to see her unborn child on the ultrasound screen before her abortion was widely criticized for imposing on the woman, and withdrawn. We have seen it recently on the other side, as the courts have rejected laws that would have required pregnancy help centers to advertise abortion services as well.

Pregnancy help involves no such imposition: it is assumed that women at all times have a choice, and that many will choose life when they have the right information and support. (Heartbeat International addresses claims that centers are “fake clinics.”)

Americans like pregnancy help. A 2014 national poll commissioned by the Charlotte Lozier Institute found that 92 percent of women (many of whom would be “pro-choice”) said that pregnancy help centers were “very necessary” (70 percent) or “fairly necessary” (22 percent) in their communities. This positive view of pregnancy help was confirmed for us by a young actress who helps us with advertising local pregnancy medical centers in Pittsburgh. S. is “pro-choice”: personally “pro-life,” but not willing to judge anyone else, she tells us. Nonetheless, she now knows that these centers are “the way to go” for abortion-vulnerable women.

If we’re looking for that actualized “culture of life” we hear about, we find it in these centers. In 2003, the new, national pregnancy helpline, OptionLine, took 35,000 calls from women in need. Like the number of pregnancy help centers themselves over the years, the calls have increased: in 2018, Heartbeat reports, that number was over 400,000. More than one million visited OptionLine’s website last year.

Advertising the Centers

Vision for Life – Pittsburgh, the nonprofit of which I am the executive director, began advertising to abortion-minded area women in late 2010. In the next few years, abortion ratios for residents of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, fell sharply, and stood at roughly the same level before dipping again in 2017, the last year for which we have statistics, to 24.1 per 100 live births (or 241 per 1,000 live births, according to another convention). From 2010 to 2017, abortion ratios declined 23.7 percent.

A separate organization from Vision for Life – Pittsburgh has begun modest advertising for AlphaCare, a pregnancy medical center in Philadelphia County, where 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s abortions are performed. Needless to say, support for that effort would be greatly appreciated.

We don’t know for certain that the increase in pregnancy help centers lies behind the drop in abortion ratios, but if advertising local centers can have this kind of effect, it seems likely. New observes that this is a “rich area for future academic and policy research.” I would welcome the Charlotte Lozier Institute’s work on it. If they were to decline, however, perhaps others, or even a lone sociologist or statistician, would take up the task. I have the data on the increase in the number of centers, but I lack the competence with statistics for a proper assessment.

We continue to need public education, academic debate, legal engagement, lobbying, and even protest, whether these demonstrably affect abortion numbers or not. If it can be shown, however, that pregnancy help is driving abortion ratios lower, then we should direct greater resources to  increasing the number of centers, and to making all of the centers better known in their communities through advertising. Statistics and broad trends are dry matters, but with them and God’s help, we may be able to deliver many more mothers and babies from the scourge of abortion.