That’s the take from the Guttmacher Institute on the fantastic news that under Obama, abortion rates have fallen yet again. They attribute the decline in abortion rates to newly effective contraception methods such as the IUD as well as the recession. Some pro-lifers are crediting the wave of restrictive legislation passed since 2011, but the data only go up to 2011! And besides, the drop has been going on for more than twenty years now, in a huge success for the pro-life movement, and for the pro-choice movement.
Which makes this moment such a telling one. The rate is now roughly where it was in 1973, when Roe went into effect. So without getting rid of the legal regime for abortion, rates are now almost where they were before it came into effect. It seems to me that this somewhat brutally undermines the case for a policy of coercion and criminality going forward. If we can halve the rate of abortion under Roe, and effectively make its impact neutral on abortion rates, without criminalizing abortion, don’t we have a win-win?
And this is surely where the Catholic Church in particular needs to make a choice, it seems to me. If abortion is by far a worse evil than contraception, and if contraception clearly dramatically reduces the chances of abortion, then there is a moral imperative to end the regime of Humanae Vitae (the papal ruling that rendered all sexual activity outside marital, unprotected sex a terrible sin).
The argument of Humanae Vitae made no sense at the time and still doesn’t (and was imposed by Pope Paul VI over the objections of his own commission into the subject). But rigidly sticking to an unpersuasive rule when it may be leading to the far worse evil of abortion, is a function of fundamentalist perversity.
We now have the evidence to support the contraception-vs-abortion argument. Why cannot the church or the religious right (which has historically had no problem with contraception) seize on the near-halving of abortion rates in twenty years and aggressively redouble the contraceptive strategy that has been so successful? Or is their obsession with criminal prohibition related to issues other than the saving of potential human life?
Update from a reader:
I just wanted to mention that while the current iterations of the IUD may be new compared to oral contraceptives, I wouldn’t call the IUD “newly effective.” American women have just been slow on the uptake since the failures of the early versions decades ago. Women in many European countries, for example, have been using the IUD for a lot longer. I mention this as a very satisfied (American) customer who has had one for nearly 8 years.
Also, as you raised the issue of Catholicism and abortion – I don’t know if you’ve looked through the more detailed findings [pdf] from the Guttmacher report, but nearly 30% of women getting abortions identified as Catholic!