In a contentious election season, and in the middle of Supreme Court nomination hearings, it was almost inevitable my daughter would ask me that dreaded question: “Dad, what are your views on abortion?”
I wanted to give her a clean and easy answer. But there is none. For her, and for you, this is the cleanest I can get it: I am pro-life, in that I believe in the sanctity of life, both for the born and unborn. I am pro-choice, in that I don’t believe I have any business imposing my opinions between any woman, her doctor and her own understanding of God. And, just as important, I am pro-choice because I believe a compassionate pro-choice stance, focused on the sanctity of life across the entire span of life, is actually the best way to reduce abortion in the long-term.
If we are to call ourselves pro-life with any shred of integrity, it must be a stance that survives the birth canal. If we are truly pro-life, we must see and embrace the sanctity of the lives of children starving in a land of excess. We must see the sanctity of the lives of immigrants, and children in cages, in prisoners on death row, in the lives of those we kill with our arms sales, and in working adults slowly dying because they cannot afford basic medical care.
Until we embrace the sanctity of life across the full spectrum of life, our claim to be pro-life is simply a sham, manipulated by unscrupulous politicians who have no problem caging children, selling arms to vaporize families in foreign lands and condemning to slow deaths the poor, the homeless and the hard-working who have fallen behind a society of and for the rich.
But, for a moment, let’s focus only on the unborn. If it is our sincere desire to reduce abortions, is the conservative approach of restricting access to or criminalizing abortion, while also rolling back access to health care, the way to go? Let’s lay aside the question of that approach being capricious, misogynistic and cruel, and simply consider: Is it effective?
Abortion rates in the United States have been steadily falling since their peak in 1990, and that downward trend started long before it was de rigueur for Bible Belt states to pass increasingly strict anti-abortion measures. Abortion rates in the U.S. are now less than half what they were in 1990, and a smaller fraction of what they were in 1973, when Roe was decided. That’s a win.
But, was that due to tighter legislation? The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice research group often cited by both sides of this debate, found that almost 400 state laws restricting abortion access were enacted between 2011 and 2017 — but 57% of the nationwide decline in abortions was in just 18 states that passed no new restrictions during that period.
Looking beyond our borders, Guttmacher found abortion rates are actually higher in countries that restrict abortion access than in those that do not. And, in countries that restrict abortion, the abortion rate has been steadily climbing in the last 30 years, while it has been declining in the United States. If it is our true desire to reduce abortions, why would we reverse course, and join the ranks of countries that have seen a steady increase of abortions over three decades?
And, what of access to health care?
Look at the maps of the countries with the highest abortion rates, and of the countries with the least reliable access to health care. They are almost identical. And look again at unintended pregnancy rates. They are highest in countries and states that have the greatest social stigma against sex, birth control and abortion. The list of the 10 U.S. states with the highest teen birth rates — which includes Oklahoma — is basically a roll call of the Bible Belt.
And what if we increase access to health care?
A 2017 report by the University of Michigan found the provision of the Affordable Care Act which allows young people to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26 led to a 9%-14% reduction in abortions among women in that age range.
Take all this together and the message is clear: If you really desire to reduce abortions in this country, the absolute worst thing you can do is ban them while also cutting health care access.
To really tackle this issue in the long-term, we — in our laws, our churches, our families and the public square — will have to commit ourselves to creating a more compassionate society that cares for mothers and their children, that truly cares for life at all ages.
That is a momentous and necessary task, that can not be accomplished solely by legislators and jurists. It will require all of us, acting out of love and compassion for those who need it most. And it certainly will never be made possible by making criminals of young women facing the worst choice of their lives.