Light and Shadows in the Cause of Life

By Susan E. Wills

May 27, 2011

There was great news this week on the abortion front. The journal Obstetrics & Gynecology reports that abortion rates in the United States continue their steady decline—an 8% drop between 2000 and 2008, to under 20 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. The rate in 1981 stood at almost 30 abortions per 1,000 women, so the abortion rate has declined by one-third in the past three decades.

Even more encouraging, teens continue to lead the way. Abortion rates among teens aged 15 to 17 dropped an impressive 22% between 2000 and 2008, and a remarkable 62% since 1984. Much of the decline can reasonably be attributed to teens choosing to remain chaste throughout their high school years. Chastity remains the key, because one in three sexually-active girls (including those contracepting) will become pregnant within 24 months of initiating sexual activity.

Then on May 23, Gallup released a poll that shows record-breaking advances for the pro-life cause: Only 27% of respondents believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances, while 72% oppose legal abortion in all (22%) or certain (50%) circumstances.

When Gallup probed further using two categories—(1) “legal in all or most circumstances” or (2) legal “under few or no circumstances,” only 37% chose the pro-abortion “legal in all or most,” while  61% of respondents chose “legal in few or no circumstances.”

Before breaking out the champagne, we need a little reality check: The dwindling ranks of abortion providers still kill over one million children in the United States every year. Abortion-promoting groups like Planned Parenthood are still enthusiastically supported by the Administration and most Senators, and we are not much closer to overturning Roe v. Wade given the composition of the Supreme Court. On the plus side, pro-lifers have been very active at the state level to win more protections for unborn children and their mothers.

Of course there are many fronts in these culture wars, and for all the gains against abortion the cause of life may be losing ground elsewhere. We have become a pampered nation, self-indulgent and unaccustomed to sacrifice or suffering. It’s not surprising, then, that assisted suicide has been gaining ground as the “painless” and “dignified” way to end one’s life—or to help end the “burden” of a dependent family member.

A retired couple, still enjoying wealth, independence, and one final gourmet meal at their country club, unwilling to live “lesser” lives in a nursing home when the time comes, are extolled by many as models of courage when they kill themselves with carbon monoxide in the garage of their luxurious home. A 91-year-old woman in California is so busy selling suicide kits online that she doesn’t have time to deposit all the checks. “Exit guides” belonging to the Final Exit Network now make house calls around the country to advise depressed and lonely people how to kill themselves with a plastic bag and a helium tank. Each guide stays long enough to remove the evidence and make it look like a natural death. The Network’s medical director boasts that he has “directed” the suicides of almost 300 patients—far more than the infamous Dr. Kevorkian—and that his role of standing by while vulnerable people kill themselves is “beautiful.”

Yet signs of hope appear on this front as well. The assisted suicide movement, which scored a victory in 2008 by passing a legalization proposal in Washington state, has passed no measure in any other state since. In Idaho this spring, the movement’s efforts created such a backlash that the legislature passed a new ban on assisted suicide. The Vermont governor’s attempt to move a legalization measure through the state legislature failed even to be considered in committee.

At the end of life, as at its beginning, the American people have not yet lost all their moral clarity or their common sense, which is fortunate, because no society ever advanced itself by promoting broader destruction of innocent life.

Susan Wills is the former Assistant Director for Education & Outreach, USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. To learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities, visit

Return to Life Issues Forum