“The United States has one of the highest abortion rates in the developed world, with women from every socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, religious and age-group obtaining abortions,” says Lawrence Finer, associate director for domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute.
The highest rate of abortion was recorded in 1981, when the rate of abortion in the States stood at an astounding 29.3 per 1,000 women aged 15-44. In the three decades since, we’ve seen a gradual decline, until last year we had 19.4 abortions per 1,000, and a total of 1.2 million. The decline is notable among teenagers, and when abortion does take place, it tends to happen earlier in the pregnancy, which is more beneficial for the mother’s health. I’m thankful for the decreasing rate of abortion. But, first, 1.2 million abortions per year is still too high for me; and second, the overall decline hides a disparity that I’ll talk about later.
The issue of (induced) abortion is one of the most contentious of our time. Some call it the defining moral issue in this election. And let me say from the outset, I believe that abortion, whenever it happens, is horrific. To crush the promise of life is an unspeakable tragedy. But I also think—I have to think—that the issue is far more comprehensive than traditional arguments for and against abortion stand. To say that one’s stance on abortion is defined by whether one believes abortion is good or bad—and I think most everyone would agree that it’s never a good thing—or by whether one believes it should be criminalized, or by some other black and white dichotomy, is too simplistic. But I’ll get into that in a second.
I believe that God gives life. Personally, I wouldn’t claim Psalm 139:13 (“it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”) as a basis for the understanding that life begins at conception. To do so would be to haphazardly harness a piece of beautifully poetic writing to support a moral argument for a biological event. It’d be like saying the creation poem of Genesis 1 tells us how God literally created the world rather than telling us the more foundational proposition that God is the Creator. (If I’ve lost you already … oh well.) But I do believe that life is a gift from God.
So I want to be committed to the position that values life—not just the life of the unborn child, but the life of the mother as well. But what does this look like? Some would say, without hesitation, making abortion illegal, or placing more restrictions on abortion. Others, like Susan Cohen, director of government affairs at the Guttmacher Institute, argue, “Evidence from around the world shows that placing restrictions on abortion to make it harder to obtain has much more to do with making it less safe than making it rarer.” So, because of the contentiousness of the issue, because we don’t live in a Christian nation (and whose version of Christianity would take precedence), because there are hardliners on both sides who would be unwilling to give up any ground or meet in the middle, I want to focus on the things that we can agree upon.
Abortions are unwanted pregnancies. Virtually every single time. (But not all unwanted pregnancies end in abortion. Nearly half of pregnancies among American women are unintended, and four in 10 of these are terminated by abortion, which means that about 22% of all pregnancies end in abortion.)
So how can we try to reduce unwanted pregnancy?
Fifty percent of U.S. women obtaining abortions are younger than 25; teenagers account for 17% of all abortions. So should we continue teaching abstinence? Sure; I’m a firm believer that not having sex is the best way to prevent pregnancies. But teaching kids not to have sex isn’t going to stop them from actually having it. (The teen abortion rates declined from 42 per 1,000 in 1989 to 20 per 1,000 in 2004, and it started even before abstinence-only education kicked in, so let’s not jump on that bandwagon.) Is teaching contraception going to mean less unwanted pregnancies? Possibly, probably, hopefully; but it’s not going to definitively deal with the problem. 13% of pill users and 14% of condom users, who reported consistent, correct use, still got pregnant.
But what about other factors that come into play? According to the Guttmacher Institute’s research, non-use of any kind of birth control is greatest among those who are young, poor, black, Hispanic or less-educated. Since 1994, unplanned pregnancy rates among poor women (those whose income was below the poverty line) have increased 29%, while rates among higher-income women (those with incomes at least twice the federal poverty level) have decreased by 20%. In 2001, a poor woman was four times as likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy as a higher-income woman, five times as likely to have an unintended birth and more than three times as likely to have an abortion as her higher-income counterpart.
Looking at race, Hispanic and black women are three and five times more likely, respectively, than non-Hispanic white women. On average, the abortion rate declined across the board, but while it fell 30% among non-Hispanic white women (from 15 to 11 per 1,000), it fell only 20% for Hispanic women (from 35 to 28 per 1,000) and only 15% for black women (from 59 to 50 per 1,000). For me, that disparity is a glaring indictment of the inequality that still plagues the system.
So let’s not pretend that abortion doesn’t disproportionately affect the poorer, the less-educated, and blacks and Latinos. Let’s not pretend that poverty doesn’t factor into it, that education doesn’t factor into it, that structures that may favor the majority culture don’t factor into it. Let’s not pretend that any number of other factors that I haven’t mentioned (and may not even be aware of) don’t factor. We’ll need to address the cultural issues that say, for example, that the men can do whatever they want and not take responsibility for it. We’ll need to address some cultural mindsets that have women looking to men to define their identity, thereby leading them to enter into ill-advised relationships.
In short, let’s not make abortion a black-and-white issue when there are so many factors involved that it’s mind-boggling. As I said at the beginning, I think that abortion, whenever it occurs, is a horrific tragedy, but some people approach the situation in a similar blasé manner as telling poor people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps … ignoring the fact that, figuratively speaking, some people don’t even have bootstraps.
At the end, I’m left facing a situation that seems to large to do anything about. But I think it’s better to have a more holistic understanding of issues—and everything is interconnected—than to make something cut-and-dry that is not so simple. Hopefully, it will make us less self-assured and more humble, more open to hearing out the other side and seeing what ideas and strategies they have for addressing the problems that face us. Hopefully, it will make us realize that we don’t hold all the cards, that we don’t know everything, and that those who have different opinions about a contentious issue such as this aren’t necessarily ignoring the gravity of the situation (or morons).
Obama and Abortion
Here are some things Barack has said over the last few years:
On an issue like partial birth abortion, I strongly believe that the state can properly restrict late-term abortions. I have said so repeatedly. All I’ve said is we should have a provision to protect the health of the mother, and many of the bills that came before me didn’t have that.
Part of the reason they didn’t have it was purposeful, because those who are opposed to abortion have a moral calling to try to oppose what they think is immoral. Oftentimes what they were trying to do was to polarize the debate and make it more difficult for people, so that they could try to bring an end to abortions overall.
As president, my goal is to bring people together, to listen to them, and I don’t think that’s any Republican out there who I’ve worked with who would say that I don’t listen to them, I don’t respect their ideas, I don’t understand their perspective. And my goal is to get us out of this polarizing debate where we’re always trying to score cheap political points and actually get things done.
(2008 Fox News interview: presidential series; Apr 27, 2008)
I absolutely think we can find common ground [between pro-life and pro-choice positions]. And it requires a couple of things. It requires us to acknowledge that.
1. There is a moral dimension to abortion, which I think that all too often those of us who are pro-choice have not talked about or tried to tamp down. I think that’s a mistake because I think all of us understand that it is a wrenching choice for anybody to think about.
2. People of good will can exist on both sides. That nobody wishes to be placed in a circumstance where they are even confronted with the choice of abortion. How we determine what’s right at that moment, I think, people of good will can differ.
And if we can acknowledge that much, then we can certainly agree on the fact that we should be doing everything we can to avoid unwanted pregnancies that might even lead somebody to consider having an abortion.
(2008 Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College; Apr 13, 2008)
[The issue of when life begins] is something that I have not come to a firm resolution on. I think it’s very hard to know what that means, when life begins. Is it when a cell separates? Is it when the soul stirs? So I don’t presume to know the answer to that question. What I know is that there is something extraordinarily powerful about potential life and that that has a moral weight to it that we take into consideration when we’re having these debates.
(2008 Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College; Apr 13, 2008)
We’ve actually made progress over the last several years in reducing teen pregnancies, for example. And what I have consistently talked about is to take a comprehensive approach where we focus on abstinence, where we are teaching the sacredness of sexuality to our children.
But we also recognize the importance of good medical care for women, that we’re also recognizing the importance of age-appropriate education to reduce risks. I do believe that contraception has to be part of that education process.
And if we do those things, then I think that we can reduce abortions and I think we should make sure that adoption is an option for people out there. If we put all of those things in place, then I think we will take some of the edge off the debate.
We’re not going to completely resolve it. At some point, there may just be an irreconcilable difference. And those who are opposed to abortion, I think, should continue to be able to lawfully object and try to change the laws.
(2008 Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College; Apr 13, 2008)
On partial birth abortion:
I think that most Americans recognize that this is a profoundly difficult issue for the women and families who make these decisions. They don’t make them casually. And I trust women to make these decisions in conjunction with their doctors and their families and their clergy. And I think that’s where most Americans are. Now, when you describe a specific procedure that accounts for less than 1% of the abortions that take place, then naturally, people get concerned, and I think legitimately so. But the broader issue here is: Do women have the right to make these profoundly difficult decisions? And I trust them to do it. There is a broader issue: Can we move past some of the debates around which we disagree and can we start talking about the things we do agree on? Reducing teen pregnancy; making it less likely for women to find themselves in these circumstances.
(2007 South Carolina Democratic primary debate, on MSNBC; Apr 26, 2007)
[An abortion protester at a campaign event] handed me a pamphlet. “Mr. Obama, I know you’re a Christian, with a family of your own. So how can you support murdering babies?”
I told him I understood his position but had to disagree with it. I explained my belief that few women made the decision to terminate a pregnancy casually; that any pregnant woman felt the full force of the moral issues involved when making that decision; that I feared a ban on abortion would force women to seek unsafe abortions, as they had once done in this country. I suggested that perhaps we could agree on ways to reduce the number of women who felt the need to have abortions in the first place.
“I will pray for you,” the protester said. “I pray that you have a change of heart.” Neither my mind nor my heart changed that day, nor did they in the days to come. But that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own-that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that had been extended to me.
(The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama, 197-198; Oct 1, 2006)
Obama and the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA)
Some have condemned Barack Obama for his support of the Freedom of Choice Act, legislation which will remove all of the legal restrictions on abortion that have developed in the years since Roe v. Wade. Personally, I would prefer that Barack be less pro-choice than he is; and many would argue that hi
s championing of the Freedom of Choice Act clearly demonstrates what an extreme pro-abortionist he is, but this is the reductive and simplistic view that I have been arguing against. I believe that, despite being pro-choice (and I believe one can be pro-choice and still be a Christian), he is wanting to meet those in the middle who want to work on ways that will achieve a reduction in unwanted pregnancies, precisely by addressing many of the factors (poverty, education) that I outlined above (and healthcare, which I didn’t mention) that many people would categorize as separate issues.
I recognize that I may not agree with you on this issue—can’t please everyone, right? And I may not have persuaded you to think otherwise. But persuasion hasn’t been my goal. I really just wanted to articulate the thoughts that are zooming around in my brain. I will confess that an issue as big and complex as this often leaves me stumped, and I swing back and forth on the best perspective with which to view the problem, and the best ways to deal with it. But I’ll do the best I can with what I do know and understand, and trust that God will somehow put his redeeming touch on my sin-tainted thoughts and actions.