Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Outlawing Abortion Does Not Reduce Abortion Rates; Contraception Does.

The first time I questioned official Catholic teachings publicly was May 8, 1967. It was in the first issue of my stint as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Loyola University of Los Angeles (it became Loyola Marymount in the summer of 1968). I raised the questions in an editorial titled “Senate Abortion Bill: Do We Protest Too Much?”

The other staffers were so anxious about the position I was taking in an official publication of a Catholic college—just recovering from a run-in with the very conservative “James Francis Cardinal McIntyre, Archbishop of Los Angeles” over which direction altars should face—that they made me initial the editorial in print.

The editorial discussed a bill proposed in the California legislature by State Sen. Anthony Beilensen to liberalize the state’s abortion laws. Toward the start I said, “The manner in which parishes throughout the Southland have sought to mobilize opposition to the abortion bill has been particularly disturbing. Week after week prelates, pastors, and parish societies have engaged in a concerted effort to impose Catholic moral teaching on the non-Catholic people of California.”

Noting that the Episcopal Bishop of California testified before the State Senate Judiciary Committee that a permissive abortion law was not immoral, I concluded, “Only a law that allows members of both faiths to live out the dictates of their consciences and their religious beliefs is consistent with the Constitution of the United States and the spirit of Vatican II.”

As expected, reaction to the editorial was mixed, largely along liberal vs. conservative lines. Let’s say I didn’t change very many Catholic minds in 1967.

But the subsequent 40 years did not talk me out of it. If anything, the sustained drumbeat of official Catholicism, here and abroad, that abortion must be outlawed, has solidified my stand.

The U.S. bishops, of course, have persuaded the evangelical right and together they have coerced numerous right-wing Catholic politicians to toe the official line.

Still, other Catholic politicians, better educated in theology and constitutional law, have repeatedly told the bishops that what they want is a bad idea, because it cannot succeed in a society where people hold a whole range of beliefs about abortion. Of course, some of those politicians have paid a heavy price for abiding by their oaths to uphold the Constitution. Bishops have attacked them personally, campaigned for their opponents, and even denied them communion to deny the validity of their argument.

Well, those Catholic politicians just got some new ammunition. It turns out there’s another reason to oppose laws that outlaw abortion: they don’t work!

Research just published in The Lancet medical journal tracked abortion trends from 1995 to 2003, the largest study ever on the global incidence of abortion. It found that women are just as likely to get an abortion in countries where it is illegal as they are where it is legal. This was true whether the country was rich or poor.

Globally there are about 205 million pregnancies each year, about 68 million unintentional. Abortions worldwide dropped from 46 million in 1995 to 42 million in 2003 (from 22.4% of pregnancies to 20.4%).

The only places abortion rates stayed noticeably higher were countries where the government had enthusiastically encouraged abortions. In eastern Europe, for example, there were 105 abortions for every 100 live births.

In western Europe, where abortion is generally legal, there were 23 abortions per 100 births. Yet in Africa, where most countries outlaw abortion, the rate was nearly the same: 17 abortions per 100 births.

Remarkably, in the United States, where the campaign to outlaw abortions has been longest and loudest, there were 33 abortions for every 100 live births. On the face of it, the western European model produces better results.

Two numbers from the study were the most damning. Half of all abortions worldwide are unsafe. And 97% of all unsafe abortions were in poor countries. About 70,000 women die each year from the unsafe abortions, and another five million are injured, some permanently. The study declared these results “a public health crisis and a human rights atrocity.”

The researchers found only one strategy that works to decrease the rate of abortions: increase the availability of contraception.

In an editorial about the study,
the Houston Chronicle found two conclusions inescapable: “The evidence is crystal clear: if abortion is a woman’s only viable choice to limit her family, she will take it, regardless of laws or safety concerns. It is equally clear that in countries where contraception is widely available, abortion rates go down. That is a choice that is both reasonable and humane.”

The message is obvious: Those who oppose abortion and contraception need to seriously reconsider their position. Trying to deny women access to both does not reduce abortions. But promoting contraception does.

If the Catholic church and the evangelical right are truly interested in reducing the number of abortions, they need to use preaching and persuasion to sell their position that abortion is wrong—and stop the pretense that outlawing abortion and discouraging contraception accomplishes anything. All it really gains is more deaths from unsafe abortions. They say they have no appetite for executing mothers who abort. Then they need to stop pushing laws that carry a death penalty.

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