In the tumultuous political climate of today, nothing is more comforting during the holiday season than to be able to sit down with your family and have a warm, respectful discussion about an issue we can all definitely agree on: abortion.
In all seriousness, the topic of abortion has divided people for decades and is, without a doubt, one of the most polarizing subjects in American politics today. My particular interest in this issue does not come from a desire to pick apart whether abortion is murder or healthcare. For many, these two ideas are deeply rooted in constructs of personal morality and religious principles that can keep them logically deadlocked from accessing the other’s perspective. Too much of the conversation today is tangled up in the philosophical discrepancies between universal truths about life and existence itself. Instead, I would like to propose that the two prevailing groups, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” may have the opportunity to reach some type of middle ground in what they are actually trying to accomplish.
The first premise on which this proposal lies, however, requires the understanding that no side is largely comprised of individuals who are “pro-abortion” or “anti-woman.” Many pro-life activists assert that their perspective comes from a feminist motivation to protect women, and equally, proponents of the pro-choice stance have acknowledged the importance of reducing abortion rates. By connecting these two principles, one can lay the foundation for constructing a more pragmatic and effective approach: making abortion less necessary for women in the first place.
It may seem surprising, but America is actually leading the worldwide trend of declining abortion rates worldwide. In recent years, the number of abortions provided per 1,000 women has declined nearly 55 percent since its peak in 1980. This trend has also been accompanied by the staggering decline in teen birth rates and unplanned pregnancies. However, in less ideal news, the rate at which abortions are declining in America has staggered since 2005 despite the increased scrutiny over Roe v. Wade by state legislators and their wide efforts to restrict access. What do these trends tell us about what actually works to protect lives (in any sense you find applicable) and what doesn’t?
One of the strongest linked factors to this decline is the overall increased access to a wider variety of contraceptives over the decades. Not only have we innovated more practical, safer methods of birth control such as implants and IUDs, but some states have also made it cheaper to purchase these. 42% of unplanned pregnancies end in abortion and of those, the majority are sought by younger women of lower-income status. This means that ease of free or low cost contraceptive options for these groups is crucial to the goal of reducing abortions. Nowhere is this more evident than in states such as Colorado, which has recently allowed the prescription of birth control pills by pharmacists and has since seen a 10% decline in abortion rates from 2014 to 2017. Additionally, in Missouri, the launch of the Contraceptive Choice Project has enrolled nearly 10,000 low income women and teens to receive free contraceptive counseling and the contraception of their choice for several years at a time. As a result, abortion rates among cohorts of the program stand in contrast to the national averages (9.7 abortions for every 1,000 women compared to 41.5). Beyond long-acting reversible contraception, the ease of purchasing emergency contraceptives such as Plan B (which prevents the fertilization of an egg) over the counter and at public university health centers for a cheaper price is crucial to women and teens who may opt out of birth control. Currently, emergency contraceptives are inconsistently available (limited options) at drug stores and can cost anywhere from $10 to $200 if you are under the age of 17 and require a prescription.
The second axis of reducing abortion rates requires a greater effort to erase the stigma surrounding sexual activity among teens. Fortunately, the shift towards a more comprehensive, evidence-based sexual education for adolescents has provided a doubling back on teen pregnancy rates since the 1990 crisis. However, despite these national attempts to reform public sexual education, there are still vast differences between states and even school districts in the curriculum material, timing and amount of sex ed that each student is required to take. For this reason, there is still a correlation between southern and midwestern states with minimum requirements and higher teen pregnancy rates. Going beyond public education, parents and guardians have to make the effort to further open up the dialogue surrounding their teens’ sexual activity by acknowledging that safe, consensual sex among their age group is not something to be ashamed of or punished. A more open attitude towards topics of reproductive health and sexual activity among teen girls in particular will better allow them to seek out precautions and birth control options with their parents to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
Lastly, the promise of affordable prenatal and post pregnancy healthcare is crucial for women to seek out less terminations. Over half of all abortions are sought by women who feel they could not afford the necessary resources to support the well-being of their child both in pregnancy and after birth. Currently, there is an emerging trend of state legislatures cutting previous funding towards family planning clinics, limiting the options for prenatal healthcare, especially in rural and disadvantaged areas. Though these measures have been taken to reduce the amount of state-funded clinics that provide abortion services, research has found no consistent connection between the implementation of restrictive laws and the decline in abortion rates where these laws are in effect. Increased state and federal funding to women’s clinics will provide more women with proper support and relief for the expenses of pregnancy, and in turn, offer them alternatives to termination.
Meanwhile, a look at worldwide trends offers an even bleaker outlook for the efficacy of restrictive laws in countries that have failed to fully address the reproductive needs of women. While abortion rates are continuously on the decline for many first world countries, in developing countries, they are mostly stagnant with a few on the rise. Without properly addressing the cause of these terminations, many women still seek out unsafe methods of abortion, making it one of the leading causes of maternal mortality worldwide.
Ultimately, there is still a lot of work to be done both institutionally and socially for women’s reproductive justice before we can expect abortion to be effectively and safely banished. The goals of both sides would be better served with a greater focus on free contraceptive choice, ease of access to health and child care, and a more open dialogue about the essentials of sexual health. I believe that the question of abortion legality may even be more negotiable in a future where it’s safer and more likely for women to not consider termination.