How Do You Solve a Problem Like Abortion?

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I admire the persistence with which Will Saletan argues for common ground in the abortion debate, and attempts to sell his fellow liberals on the notion that reducing the abortion rate belongs in the Democratic Party's agenda. But I remain unconvinced that his preferred method for such reductions - a dramatic new push, whether political or cultural, to expand the use of contraception in the United States - would produce anything like the results that he envisions.

Consider, for instance, the idea that the government should dramatically expand eligibility for free contraception through Medicaid, a notion that conservatives objected to when it was tacked onto the stimulus package, and which Saletan links to as part of his latest proposed framework for an Obama abortion agenda. Here's Adam Thomas and Isabel Sawhill, both serious folks and proponents of the proposal, on the potential impact of such an initiative:

A recent Brookings Institution policy brief concluded that, in states that have already been granted income-eligibility waivers, this policy led to a significant reduction in the number of sexually-active women who have unprotected sex. We have incorporated this finding into a cutting-edge simulation model of family formation. Our results suggest that a similar expansion in contraceptive services in the remaining states would reduce the annual number of children born out of wedlock by more than 25,000, would reduce the number of pregnancies to unmarried teenagers each year by 19,000, and would reduce the annual number of abortions to unmarried women by nearly 12,000.

That sounds enormously impressive - until you consider that as of 2004, there were 2.8 million pregnancies among unmarried women in the United States, and roughly 1 million abortions. Which means that the universalization of this program, according to its supporters, might reduce the national abortion rate by somewhere between 1 and 2 percent. That's not nothing, obviously, but it's not a whole lot either - and in a country of millions upon millions, where countless trends shift the number of pregnancies and abortions around from year to year, it's perilously close to statistical noise. When you consider that there's good reason to think that Roe v. Wade raised the abortion rate by well over 50 percent, I think you can see why most opponents of abortion look at a "more birth control" strategy as a cop-out, rather than a cure.

But don't listen to me; listen to Will Saletan, in his recent Times op-ed on the same subject:

Eight years ago, the Alan Guttmacher Institute surveyed over 10,000 American women who had abortions. Nearly half said they hadn't used birth control in the month they conceived. When asked why not, 8 percent cited financial problems, and 2 percent said they didn't know where to get it. By comparison, 28 percent said they had thought they wouldn't get pregnant, 26 percent said they hadn't expected to have sex and 23 percent said they had never thought about using birth control, had never gotten around to it or had stopped using it. Ten percent said their partners had objected to it. Three percent said they had thought it would make sex less fun.

This isn't a shortage of pills or condoms. [emphasis mine - RD] It's a shortage of cultural and personal responsibility. It's a failure to teach, understand, admit or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation -- and the subsequent killing, through abortion -- of a developing human being.

Well, yeah. But from this admirable premise, Saletan circles back, inevitably, to blaming conservatives yet again - not for supporting policies that cause a shortage of contraceptives, this time, but for cultural messaging that discourages people from using them. Pro-lifers need to recognize that "a culture of life requires an ethic of contraception," he writes. "Birth control isn't a sin or an offense against life, as so many girls and Catholic couples have been taught. It's a loving, conscientious way to prevent the conception of a child you can't bear to raise and don't want to abort."

This makes it sound like the long shadow of Humanae Vitae and the malign influence of the Quiverfull movement are a big part of America's abortion problem. But if religious-conservative objections to contraceptive use were actually a big part of the cultural background to our abortion and out-of-wedlock birth rate, you'd expect to see some actual evidence of it. For one thing, you'd expect evidence that the Catholic Church's position on birth control has a significant impact on American Catholic sexual behavior, let alone on sexual behavior in the society at large. But the vast majority of Catholics are already on board with Saletan's premises. Around 80 percent think the Church should change its teaching on contraception. 88 percent of Catholic doctors prescribe it. As many as 95 percent of married Catholics use it. And I'm pretty sure that the 5-10 percent of Catholics who do obey the Church's teaching aren't having all that many abortions.

Moreover, if Saletan's diagnosis were correct, you'd also expect the pockets of America most influenced by religious conservatism to provide object lessons in the folly of trying to build a culture of life without a culture of contraception. But look at American abortion rates by state: The states with the lowest abortion rates are places like the Dakotas, Utah, Kentucky, West Virginia, Kansas, and Mississippi; the states with the most are places like California, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts. There are liberal states with low abortion rates (your Maines and Minnesotas), and right-tilting states with higher ones, but by and large the most religiously-conservative states seem to be doing a pretty good job on that whole culture of life business already, despite their failure to recognize the moral imperative of welcoming Planned Parenthood with open arms.

As I said, I applaud Saletan's search for common ground, and I recognize that the distance between his idea of compromise and mine reflects deep philosophical differences than no data set can bridge. But I also think it also reflects faulty empirical premises about what causes high abortion rates (and what produces lower ones), and I wish he'd reassess them.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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