Last Monday, the Guttmacher Institute released a new report showing the abortion rate dropped 13 percent between 2008 and 2011. This news was no big surprise to pro-choice activists and journalists, who have long argued that increasing social acceptance of contraception and generally relaxed attitudes about sex generally make it easier to prevent unintended pregnancy. But anti-choicers are unhappy about the abortion rate drop. (Which is again no surprise to pro-choicers, who know antis depend on the sense of a world in decline to fundraise, but may surprise most people who mistakenly believe anti-choicers care about fetal life.) In particular, they don’t like the researcher’s inference that better contraception use is the likely cause, because, say it with me now, the anti-choice movement is about punishing sex, not saving life. So the strategy is to deny that contraception has anything to do with it and instead take credit for shaming women out of abortion.
Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life, in particular, was all over the news media, trying to get credit for it, grumpily claiming that the Guttmacher report “fails to acknowledge the impact of pro-life legislation.” (She also insinuated elsewhere that abortion providers are just straight up lying and performing more abortions than they say.) Since the numbers can’t be attributable to the massive uptick in abortion restrictions—most of these went into effect after the end of the study period—the narrative has emerged that the increased lobbying by anti-choicers somehow alerted women previously unaware that some people disapprove of abortion to instead carry otherwise unwanted pregnancies to term. Catholic News Agency gathered a bunch of anti-choicers together to take credit for changing the “culture.” They quote Michael New attributing the shift to “changes in public opinion” on abortion. SBA List’s Marjorie Dannenfelser also tried to credit the rise in lobbying on the issue with, “our nation is indeed growing weary of the destruction wrought by legalized abortion on demand.”
Bluntly put, this is all just hand-waving nonsense. Public opinion on abortion has remained relatively stable since it was first legalized and the small bits of up-and-down movement don’t really correlate with actual abortion rates. More importantly, the argument only works if you ignore the fact that not having an abortion means you will have a baby. It’s not uncommon for anti-choicers to gloss over this fact, as bizarre as this is, but this case is particularly egregious. This is simple enough for a kindergartner to figure out: If the abortion rate was falling because women were choosing to have babies instead, the birth rate would go up right as the abortion rate went down. But the writer Adelaide Mena admits in the piece that the birth rate is going down too. What do they think is happening here? Women who want abortions but refuse them are thanked by God by making their pregnancies go away? Do they think we’re undergoing a sudden downturn in fertility? It’s kind of hard to parse, since they outright refuse to accept that contraceptive use is as universal as it really is. Honestly, I think they just hope gullible readers overlook the discrepancy.
But no amount of hand-waving can fix this for the anti-choice movement. There is no real evidence that stigmatizing and shaming abortion stops women from having abortions. The most that it does is makes them feel really bad about it—which I have to imagine is a consolation prize for antis—and to drive it underground. Shame doesn’t stop women from having abortions, however. Women have abortions for financial and personal reasons, and these reasons are usually profound enough to overwhelm any pre-existing distaste for abortion pounded into your head by religious authorities and misogynist political movements. Abortion is a deeply personal decision. What politicians think about it, therefore, just doesn’t even register for most women who are faced with it.
Look at this recent chart released by the American Values Network, a progressive religious organization. If the debates about abortion in mere state legislatures supposedly lowers the abortion rate, as Dannenfelser argues, then the president of the United States—the guy that most Americans can name while they draw a blank on who represents them locally—should have an even bigger impact, right? No one is more famous or has a bigger bully pulpit than the president. Having a president who denounces abortion, by this theory, should result in a larger drop in the number of abortions than having a president who supports abortion. But what we find is that the opposite is true: Pro-choice presidents presided over much bigger declines in the abortion rate than anti-choice presidents.
This isn’t to say that the pro-choice presidents were making choices that somehow lowered the abortion rate, of course. The abortion rate is probably declining for reasons unrelated to who the president is. Which is the point: Women’s choices to have abortions have very little to do with what “society” tells them to do, and everything to do with what their personal circumstances demand.
The Guttmacher study revealed something that’s incredibly simple but also incredibly profound: The biggest factor when it comes to how many abortions there are is how many unintended pregnancies there are. Yes, the percentage of pregnancies that are unintended doesn’t seem to be changing a lot, but since the overall rate of pregnancy dropped significantly, the unintended pregnancy rate dropped with it. When unintended pregnancy rates go down, the abortion rate goes down.
This fact is uncomfortable for anti-choicers because they don’t want to lower the unintended pregnancy rate. The whole premise of the anti-choice movement is that getting pregnant should be the price you pay for having sex. It’s an entire ideological movement that mourns, as conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat grossly puts it, a society where “sex has been decoupled from marriage.” The abortion debate is really a stand-in for the unintended pregnancy debate. Anti-choicers see unintended pregnancy largely as a social good that forces some people to get married and punishes other people for the “sin” of having unsanctioned sex. It’s a form of social control, and conservatives love themselves some social control. Pro-choicers, on the other hand, view it through a human rights lens. We think women should be in control of pregnancy, not that pregnancy should be used to control women. Once you understand that, how it can be that anti-abortion people are discombobulated by a lower abortion rate and pro-choice people are excited about it makes perfect sense.