Published again in the dark of night, on the Friday after Thanksgiving with virtually no press coverage, the verdict is now in regarding Mr. Bush's effect on abortion in America: the number of abortions rose in 2002 for the first time in 13 years (See the CDC report, 11/25/05). The increases were small, representing a clear inflection point in the long-standing trend under President Clinton that significantly decreased the total number of abortions in the US. But the populations that experienced the most significant increases were teenagers and poor women. The teen population has been at the receiving end of information-free sex education classes across America. The number of poor people in the United States has climbed dramatically during the five years of the Bush Administration.
Meanwhile, the crowds gathered again in Washington DC, recalling the Supreme Court's 1973 decision shifting authority on the issue away from individual states. The concern for the unborn is real in the hearts of many, but the focus is completely misplaced. As abortion rates dived below where they were before Roe v Wade, in the vicinity of 20 per 1000 women of reproductive age per year, is this landmark decision really relevant anymore to the abortion phenomenon in America?
Surprisingly, law turns out to have little in common with morality, as demonstrated by the fact that none of the Ten Commandments are actually written into law. Even killing is considered acceptable in all sorts of special circumstances: for instance, the state-sponsored killing that has been condemned by our Bishops, or the dozens of people who are being killed every day in Iraq by our military. Drunkeness (the leading preventable cause of mental retardation and of road deaths), divorce, and greed come to mind as examples of sins that no one is trying to outlaw.
Mark Harrington, director of the "Center for Bioethical Reform" in the Midwest, wrote last week to his supporters, "Ending legal abortion has always been the main goal of the pro life movement. This battle is about changing hearts and minds on the morality of abortion one person at a time. Outlawing abortion will never 'zero' its frequency of occurrence, but it will reduce its frequency of occurrence to the irreducibly minimal level that can be achieved through vigorous enforcement of the law."
Mr. Harrington is apparently unaware of the failures of similar previous crusades, and people like him make four demonstrably false assumptions: First, Republicans have given credence to the assumption that reversing Roe-v-Wade, indeed even making abortion illegal, would have any effect on the number of abortions. But the widespread support for abortion rights makes any legislation against it guaranteed to cause a huge rent in the social fabric. One has to look no further than the Constitutional amendment imposing Prohibition, which was never enforceable because it was never accepted by a large segment of the American population. Anyone who thinks that making abortion illegal, even with tough enforcement, will have any effect on abortion rates is fooling themselves. One has but to look at the ubiquity of marijuana use across the country, despite the hundreds of thousands of people serving in state and federal prisons, to see that law often has little capacity for controlling drug use. And make no mistake, abortion will be an illegal drug problem in any state that succeeds in outlawing it. This is because in the future, surgical abortions will be increasingly less common and will be replaced by abortion-inducing drugs. The easiest to use is the anti-ulcer drug, misoprostol (which costs pennies to make, and is currently sold for hundreds of dollars).
Second, illegal does not equal immoral, and vice-versa. The ubiquity of speeding, despite the fact that it kills people, does not equate with immorality in most people's minds. In fact, most people have an intuitive sense of the immorality of something that seems to have nothing to do with law. Invading other countries and killing scores of thousands of people is apparently legal, but most Christians recognize the immorality of it.
Third, there is a widespread assumption that making abortion illegal is the only way to deal with the problem. The fact is that the crusade to make abortion illegal is, practically-speaking, an excuse to do nothing that actually decreases abortions. Republican control of all three branches of government has been associated with more abortions than had been projected during the period of dramatic declines experienced under the Clinton Administration. The Bush Administration will never seek a Constitutional Amendment outlawing abortion, because it would be counterproductive to them politically. Better to harness the passion (and dollars) of people who care about the unborn, while continuing to do nothing about the underlying factors leading to abortion--like poverty, and racial disparities in education and health care access.
Finally, to those who think that making abortion illegal is the "moral" solution to the problem--think again. Jesus would never have advocated using the coercive power of the state to compel anyone to a moral decision of any kind. Law may be a practical solution to many problems, like compelling the payment of income taxes, but it is never the "moral" solution for people of faith. And as indicated above, overturning Roe-v-Wade may have no effect on abortion rates at all. Restrictive laws in Mississippi have had no effect on the abortion rates there. When one considers that something approaching half of all current abortions in the world are done illegally, there is no evidence that illegality would have any practical effect on the abortion rates. Thus overturning the decision cannot be described either as a practical solution, or a "moral" solution, to the problem of abortion.
Ohio Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan has fashioned legislation that, if enacted, could dramatically lower abortion rates. Republican Congressmen are rushing to join Rep. Ryan in sponsoring this legislation, because of their concern about the unborn, right? Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The four "anti-abortion" bills enacted during the first Bush Administration didn't even pretend to have any effect on the abortion rates, but were rather all about "labeling" the Democrats as the "pro-abortion party." The last thing Republicans want is anti-abortion legislation that Democrats can support, even if it might actually decrease the number of abortions.
But back on the subject of Roe-v-Wade, in contrast, the law of unintended consequences suggests that illegality would lead to dramatic increases in the birth defects associated with misoprostol use, increases in late-term abortions, and increased feelings of isolation and despair among young single women. The statistics now show just how wrong the whole coercion-based Republican approach to abortion has been. Jesus preached a religion of love, one that invites rather than punishes, and those who preach a different religion are misleading themselves when they invoke the name of Jesus to support overturning Roe-v-Wade.