Fatalism can be Fatal

By Susan E. Wills

October 17, 2008

Some Catholics have lately entered the abortion debate, and with the gloomy pessimism of Winnie the Pooh's friend Eeyore, they grumble about the failure to overturn Roe v. Wade. "Why should we even try to overturn Roe?" they ask. "Nothing we do makes a difference."

They say we"re supposed to accept the reality of abortion, the permanence of Roe, and try to reduce abortions by lifting people out of poverty. But poverty is only one of many factors influencing abortion decisions. And these pessimists seem unaware of notable gains already achieved. Through pro-life laws, education, and pregnancy services, abortions have declined over 31% in the U.S. since their peak of 1.6 million in 1990.

The abortion rate has dropped by more than one-third—to under 20 abortions per 1,000 women—mainly because there have been fewer unintended pregnancies. (I'll explain why later.) And more women who are pregnant are choosing life.

How does the public regard abortion? An October 2008 Marist poll finds that 60% of Americans would ban all but 2-3% of abortions (some making exceptions only for risk to the life of the mother, rape, and incest). Remarkably, the abortion regime under Roe, which allows for abortion on demand for any reason throughout pregnancy, is favored by only 8% of Americans.

Within the narrow range of regulations permitted by Roe, Congress and the states have enacted hundreds of laws that have been shown to reduce abortions, for example, laws providing for parental involvement, informed consent, restrictions on taxpayer funding, and a ban on the barbaric partial-birth abortion procedure.

Although some mistakenly attribute declining abortions to increased contraceptive use, the facts tell a different story. Between 1984 and 2004, the abortion rate for girls under 18 plummeted more than 60%. Rates for 18- and 19-year-olds dropped 48%. The decline tapers off for women in their 20s and rates actually increase among women over 30. Are teens using more and better contraception than older women?  Ridiculous. Teen use of oral contraceptives has not changed in over 12 years: only 1 in 6 teen couples relies on the pill, and miniscule percentages use the more effective implants or shots. Furthermore, as used by teens, pills have a high failure (pregnancy) rate of 13% (over 12 months), rising to a 48% failure rate among cohabiting teens.

So what is driving the decline in abortions among teens? Since the early 1990s, the number of sexually active teens has declined 15%. One study finds abstinence responsible for two-thirds of the decline in teen pregnancy from 1991-1995. Whereas 1 in 3 sexually active teen girls will become pregnant (regardless of contraceptive use), no abstinent girls will face that challenge.

Let's keep doing what works, fighting on all fronts, and vigorously opposing the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) which could erase these important gains. FOCA allows for taxpayer funding of abortions and would strike down virtually every regulation that has been shown to reduce abortions, especially among teens. Let's support expanded services for women in need and not the contraceptive approach that dehumanizes sexuality and increases abortions.

Susan E. Wills is the former assistant director of education and outreach, Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to www.usccb.org/prolife to learn more about the bishops' pro-life activities.