Back in the earliest days of my blogging, I wrote that abortion was the single most important position for me in voting decisions. It seems I’m not the only one. According to Gallup polling, 21% of voters say that a candidate must share their view on abortion to get their vote (and it goes up to 23% if you’re pro-life). Another 46% say that abortion is one of many important factors in making their voting choices.
If this issue matters to you, you’re not alone.
I don’t want to argue who is or isn’t pro-life in this post. I’ve previously blogged about my position there. Instead, I want to dig deeper into the issue at hand. What are we talking about when we discuss abortion in politics?
I mean, really, can we pause to talk about the issue? I mean, without yelling and formulating responses before we even listen? I’ve put my thoughts out there in some less conventional ways lately, and the backlash has been ugly. I’m not talking about dialogue and debate. That’s healthy. I’m talking about name-calling and insults and attacks.
The debates and dialogue? They’ve pushed me to research more deeply and think more critically. The insults and attacks? They’ve helped me discern where boundaries are needed when people have revealed the limits of their grace with me.
Both have had their benefits. But can we all agree, as we move forward, that debates and dialogue are preferable? We don’t all have to agree, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. I know we can. I’m sure of it.
Who is getting abortions?
Generally speaking, low-income women are. In 2014, 75% of those getting abortions fit in that category (with 49% below the poverty level and 26% below 200% of the poverty line). This is why I strongly advocate for supports for those in economic distress. If abortion is a symptom of poverty, then we ought to target the cause, right? That makes sense to me.
While reducing teenage pregnancy rates is necessary for a variety of reasons, that demographic makes up fewer abortions than I would have guessed prior to digging into the numbers. Only 12% of those getting abortions in 2014 were teens, with only 4% being teens under age 18. Obviously, we shouldn’t abandon our efforts to continue these decreases, but 96% of those getting abortions are adults, with 88% age 20 or older.
I could continue to break down the trends for you, but here’s a helpful fact sheet for that. My purpose here isn’t to rehash all the current figures when those are readily available elsewhere.
Are abortion rates dropping? Why or why not?
Abortion rates are decreasing, and that’s something to celebrate. No one thinks abortion is ideal, even if they don’t share my view that life is created at conception and should be protected from the womb to the tomb. When abortion becomes less common, we can call that good together, even if we disagree on political approaches, right?
In 1991, the rate of abortion was 26.3 per 1000 women, but by 2011 that had dropped to 16.9. And the ratio of abortions per live births is dropping too, from 27.3 abortions per 100 live births in 1991 to 21.2 abortions per 100 live births in 2011. By every measure, abortions are becoming rarer, as well as safer for the mother.
Are stricter laws behind the change? No. This decrease is happening both in states that have enacted stricter laws and those who haven’t.
Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life and a woman who I highly respect (having met her in DC this past January when we both spoke at the Evangelicals for Life conference), suggested that this is due to changing attitudes about life and abortion. I do think that’s part of it. More Americans called themselves pro-life in the past few years than ever before since Roe v Wade.
But that trend has shifted, with last year’s Gallup poll showing that for the first time in seven years, more Americans identify as pro-choice than pro-life. (That said, we’re still falling within the historical trends for both views.) Yet abortion rates are still dropping. So I don’t think an attitudinal shift fits as the primary force behind this good news.
Returning to the issue of state laws, Yoest’s organization has been a driving force behind abortion restrictions, yet the only states with increases – Michigan and Louisiana – restricted abortion and yet saw their rates rise. In fact, 5 of the 6 states with the largest recent decreases in abortion rates were blue states in which few abortion restrictions exist and pro-life sentiment is lower than the rest of the country.
So what are these states doing differently?
Simple: They’re providing comprehensive sex education shown to decrease unexpected pregnancy rates, they’re offering supports to those in need so that raising a child (or another child) is more feasible economically, and they’re ensuring access to birth control which can prevent unplanned pregnancies. (In fact, all states are under the Affordable Care Act. Research shows that universal health care coverage leads to lower abortion rates, and increased access to birth control – especially more effective longer lasting kinds - lowers abortion rates). I consider these to be pro-life policies, as they both affirm born lives and reduce abortions of unborn lives.
In other words, these states aren’t focusing on the where and how of abortion. They’re targeting the why. And they’re changing that, through economic, educational, medical, and social means. (Thankfully, this can continue to happen no matter who is elected president, though I don’t see much hope in the Supreme Court making a significant change here. Even if Roe were overturned, the issue would revert to the states. The most effective pro-life government actions, like the Prevention First Act, aim to reduce abortions by preventing unplanned pregnancies. Again, it’s changing the why that brings change, not attacking the where, when, or how.)
What about birth rates?
As I mentioned above, some anti-abortion advocates are arguing that abortion rates are dropping because more women are pro-life. But if more women were choosing life, then birth rates would be rising. They aren’t. In fact, they’re dropping, starting in 2008 as our country hit hard economic times.
The drop in birth rates is a contributing factor to the reduction in abortions, of course. If fewer women are getting pregnant, fewer will seek abortions. That’s basic math. But abortion rates are falling more than birth rates, so something else is going on.
(For example, from peaks in 1991 and 1988 respectively to 2010, teenage birth rates dropped 44% while teenage abortion rates dropped 66%. We expect to see those drop in unison, though the greater drop in abortion is greater than birth rates, so other factors seem to be at play here. Research shows that sexual activity among teens didn’t decrease in these time periods, though, so that’s not it.)
Birth control is a considerable factor here, along with other methods of family planning (and, for teens, a delayed start of sexual activity compared to the past). Some anti-abortion advocates argue that birth control isn’t as effective as abstinence. That’s true. But 68% of women at risk of pregnancy use birth control consistently. Those women only account for 5% of all unexpected pregnancies. Meanwhile, 18% of women of childbearing age use birth control inconsistently. They make up 41% of unplanned pregnancies. Finally, 14% of women use no birth control or take long gaps in use. The most unintended pregnancies – 54% - are to those women. In other words, if education, supports, and access were improved for the small subgroups of women who aren’t using any birth control and who use it inconsistently, then we could reduce the vast majority of unintended pregnancies.
I often hear my pro-life friends argue that abstinence is better than birth control because birth control can fail, even among those who use it perfectly. But when we only teach and promote abstinence, what happens when that fails? More unplanned pregnancies are the end result there than when birth control fails. In that 14% of women who take no birth control, leading to 54% of unplanned pregnancies, some of them were following a path of abstinence. So it would be just as logical, then, to argue that the failure rate of abstinence is concerning too.
Giving kids knowledge about ways to protect themselves against STIs and unwanted pregnancies doesn’t make them promiscuous; it makes them better educated. How is that a bad thing?
But don’t pro-choice folks want abortion up to 40 weeks of pregnancy?
Well, first, the pro-choice group isn’t monolithic, much like the pro-life group isn’t. I can’t honestly say that all pro-choice advocates oppose this, just like I can’t honestly say that all pro-life advocates oppose charging mothers with a crime if they get an abortion. Outliers in both camps hold extreme positions. That’s true of any issue. (And I’ve written and spoken out about those extreme anti-life folks who even suggest that post-birth abortion is a good choice.)
But this question is based in propaganda instead of reality. It’s easy to say anyone who voted against bans on partial birth or late term abortions is a monster who wants to kill babies. It’s harder to dig into the issue further, to discover that most of those votes were cast out of a concern for maternal or fetal health, as such bans lacked provisions for those abortions to be an option in cases in which the mother’s health is in jeopardy or the unborn baby is diagnosed with a serious fetal abnormality.
(And? I don’t really understand why we’re discussing partial birth abortions. They’re illegal. They were banned in 2003, with the Supreme Court upholding that in 2007.)
The reality is that 2/3 of abortions are before the gestational age of 8 weeks, according to the CDC. More than 90% are before 13 weeks. Only 1.3% of abortions are after 21 weeks, most occurring before 24 weeks. In 1997 – before the partial birth abortion ban – 0.08% of abortions were after 24 weeks; with changes in laws, I expect it would be lower now, though figures are hard to find. In other words, we’re talking about 1,000 deaths a year in this manner. Is that a tragedy worth discussing? Yes. But in the scheme of the more than 1 million abortions each year, why are our debates focusing on this sliver of cases, particularly when they’re more likely to involve significant fetal diagnoses incompatible with life, babies who aren’t expected to live no matter what?
Wait, I thought you advocated against abortions due to disability?
I do. My husband and I were never in that position (and we won’t be, as we opted for the permanent birth control method of a vasectomy for him a few years back), but we talked about what we would do. We both feel strongly that we’d carry a baby to term, even if he or she had a condition incompatible with life. I was moved by Angie Smith’s powerful book I Will Carry You about their family’s experience with that decision. But? As strongly as I believe that any viable pregnancy – including those in which a disability is present – should be carried to full term, I believe that there is no single right answer when an unborn baby receives a diagnosis that is fatal.
To me, it’s similar to when a family decides to pull the plug on life-sustaining machines for a loved one relying on them. Some families choose to make that decision right away. Some families hold out for a while. Each has their own unique reasons. The difference here is that the womb is the life-sustaining vessel for the baby who is expected to die before birth or very shortly thereafter.
Do some miracles happen in which a child lives much longer than expected? Certainly. Can every single day and moment be precious then? Definitely (and the story of Eliot, my friends Matt and Ginny’s son, proves that). Do some miracles happen in which a person is unplugged from life-giving machines and then is able to live without those helps? Sure. Do most families who choose to keep their loved one plugged in longer say that the extra time was valuable to them? Yes.
But these are painful and personal decisions. Just because I would make one choice doesn’t mean I think it’s the only acceptable option. Stories like this and this and this and more demonstrate the agony of these decisions. It’s not easy peasy like some make it all sound.
But I do know and love some precious children who were declared to have conditions incompatible with life but who didn’t die. Their parents chose to continue the pregnancy. They were born. And they are delightful children! Yes, they live with disabilities, but that isn’t a measure of their worth, is it? That isn’t a measure of whether or not they deserve life, is it? Can you look at this joyful child of mine and say that her chair or diagnosis of cerebral palsy means her value is diminished?
We chose her name carefully. Zoe means life. Amanda means worthy of love. We knew the world might try to tell her lies about who she is, so we wanted even her own name to declare that she is a life worthy of love, no matter what anyone else says.
And I know there are people who argue that her quality of life isn’t enough. They look at her wheelchair and shake their heads. The last neurologist to review her records prior to our adoption said, “This child will be horribly devastating.” But they are wrong. Zoe Amanda is more than enough, she rocks her wheelchairs, and no one has ever thought of her as horribly devastating since those awful words were spoken.
We need to change how we think and talk about people with disabilities. But we don’t change these perceptions through law. No, hearts are changed in other ways.
Consider, for example, the rates of abortion for unborn babies with prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome or other disabilities. I’ve written about this in depth previously. It’s not okay with me that unborn babies diagnosed with Down syndrome are nearly twice as likely to be aborted as those without such a diagnosis. In the most recent comprehensive research review on the topic, the author wrote, “Evidence also suggests that termination rates have decreased in recent years, which may reflect progress in medical management for individuals with Down syndrome and advances in educational, social, and financial support for their families.” He elaborated in an interview with The Atlantic,
In other words, it isn’t laws or court rulings that are decreasing abortion rates for children with prenatally diagnosed disabilities. It’s policies and programs available – from medical care to education to social supports and more – that affirm their lives after they are born. When we show that there are places in our country in which people with disabilities are welcome and loved, expectant parents feel more confident in choosing life instead of abortion when faced with a diagnosis for their unborn child.
So what does this all mean politically?
Under Democrat administrations, abortion rates have dropped. And the myth that a Republican president will end abortion or overturn Roe v Wade? Well, it’s been 45 years. In that time, we’ve seen 9 Republican House majorities, 10 Senate majorities, and 5 terms of Republican president. And? None have been successful in ending abortion. We’re insisting on doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s insanity, not wisdom.
The reality is that 1 in 5 pregnancies ended in abortion in 2011. That’s tragic. I’m not okay with that. But I want us to have real conversations about this instead of clinging to sound bites or repeating failed methods. Politically, I don’t think either side has it right.
In other words, I’m not writing this to tell you which way to vote. I’m not writing this to champion a party or candidate. I’m not writing this to point to any side as having it right. I’m writing this to encourage us all to dig deeper and talk about the substance of the issue instead of the sound bites.
So are you pro-life or not?
I’ve written about how I reject most labels. I still do. But pro-life is one that I will always claim. I am pro-life. Or, more accurately, I am pro-lives.
I believe the life in the womb is valuable. I believe the life of the infant is valuable. I believe the lives of refugees is valuable. I believe the hundreds of lives lost in Haiti and dozens lost in the US in the recent hurricane are valuable. I believe the lives of people of color are valuable. (And I believe Black Lives Matter.) I believe the lives of immigrants are valuable. I believe the lives of people are valuable, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. I believe the lives of pregnant women are valuable. I believe the lives of our LGBTQ+ friends valuable. I believe the lives of Muslims are valuable.
I believe our value rests in our shared humanity, not what we do and who we love and where we live and who we worship and what our abilities are. If that makes me radical, so be it.
And I believe the life of Donald Trump and the life of Hillary Clinton are valuable – not because of what they’ve done but because God created each of them with intent – which is why I will criticize their words or positions when warranted but will never engage in hateful rhetoric or name calling against either. Doing so would devalue their lives. Doing so would make it clear that I am only situationally pro-life.
No, I’m pro-life. Period. Full stop.
I would like to be able to vote for someone who believes in the value of all lives from the womb to the tomb, and both major party candidates fail to meet that standard. I am grieved by the lives lost to abortion, and I disagree with those who dismiss those as less than anyone else’s life. I am grieved by the stance that says abortion has to be our primary issue in voting, though, because it treats born lives as less valuable than those in the womb.
I think parts of the Republican platform affirm life and other parts deny it. I think parts of the Democrat platform affirm life and other parts deny it. My pro-life stance is a major reason why I’m unaffiliated with either party.
I’ve shared previously who I’m voting for and why, but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about showing how much more complex the issue of abortion is than either party would have us believe. Pro-life and pro-choice, anti-abortion and pro-abortion, and any other labels you’d like to use all exist on a spectrum. No political party has the market cornered on life.
So what am I? I’m #prolives.
I am #prolives. I won’t exalt one group of lives over another. At times, I will have to make hard choices when I vote, because I rarely see a holistically #prolives candidate on my ballot.
Please, as you vote and advocate and use your voice in all the beautiful ways you can, remember that we’re all in this together.
The lives of those who agree with you? They’re sacred. The lives of those who disagree with you? They’re sacred. The lives of those who share your passion? They’re sacred. The lives of those who are apathetic to what you value? They’re sacred. The lives yet to born? They’re sacred. The lives already born? They’re sacred.
My life? It’s sacred.
Your life? It’s sacred.
Let us treat one another as sacred beings, acting in a #prolives way of living and loving.