Arkansas joins a growing list of states flouting the court over abortion in hopes of getting its rulings overturned. They have a theory that three conservative justices appointed in recent years are secretly ready to overturn not just Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a limited right to abortion, but also the stronger 1992 holding in Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
Those with long memories may recall that antiabortion politicians such as Hutchinson have been chasing votes and raising money on this issue for decades. The end of Roe v. Wade is always just around the next bend, a carrot dangled in front of the conservative electorate, enticing the base to keep pulling the wagon. It has been a staple of Republican platforms since the days of Ronald Reagan. Meanwhile, generations of Republican-appointed justices, many of them personally opposed to abortion, have reaffirmed the limited right of women to abort an unwanted pregnancy before the viability of the fetus outside the womb.
Over time, the anti-Roe movement has become its own cottage industry, increasingly disconnected from real-world facts. Most important of these: According to definitive statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, American women undergo abortions at significantly lower rates today than they did in 1973, the year of the Supreme Court’s first ruling. Statistics before Roe are questionable, because of the uncertain number of dangerous amateur procedures. It’s likely that those who seek a return to the days before Roe v. Wade would take us to a time when abortion was more common than it is now.
Abortion rates have been falling for the past 40 years. There was a spike after legalization, as desperate women came out of the shadows. But from a high of 29.3 induced abortions per 1,000 women of child-bearing age in 1981, the number fell back to the 1973 level of 16.3 by 2012. By 2017 (the year of Guttmacher’s most recent nationwide survey) the rate dropped by a further 17 percent, to 13.5 per 1,000 women.
The steep drop in abortions has been a nationwide phenomenon, occurring in states where access is comparatively easy and in states where clinics face hostile regulations. And while the rate of abortions has plummeted, the rate of live births has not risen. Put another way: The decline in the abortion rate has not been a function of more (unwanted) pregnancies being carried to term. Instead, babies born in the United States today are more likely to be part of welcoming families.
Since the introduction of the pill in 1960, the United States has been engaged in a grand experiment: What happens when women have autonomy over their bodies, and couples have easy access to a variety of birth-control methods? The results are in: Abortion rates go down — not because intrusive, punitive laws are passed but because fewer pregnancies are unwanted.
There remains a small, orthodox religious movement, mainly among conservative Roman Catholics, that opposes contraception itself as a kind of abortion, an unnatural interruption of natural baby-making. Suffice it to say, this movement has failed to persuade many people — starting with their fellow Catholics, whose birthrate has fallen steeply where contraceptives are widely available.
A world where every newborn is greeted with joy — never with dread and never with resentment — is a magnificent goal, and we are measurably closer to that goal today than in the days before Roe v. Wade. A world where fewer women are pregnant without wanting to be, and therefore seeking an abortion, is likewise a worthy goal. And we are measurably closer to that one, too.
By guaranteeing access to contraception and by protecting the right to abortion under certain circumstances, the Supreme Court made room for this experiment, and the court deserves some credit for the success. The result of reproductive freedom is fewer abortions, not more. No wonder the American public, by a strong majority, supports the existing constitutional framework around abortion.
If America’s antiabortion lawmakers truly care about reducing the number of abortions, they would adopt the strategy that shows concrete success. Stop grandstanding over unconstitutional bills that only gin up controversy and thus deepen our divisions. Work instead to further expand self-determination for women through education, opportunity and access to health care of all kinds.
One side says “choose life.” The other says, choose freedom. The good news is we can choose both: more freedom and fewer abortions. The first one leads to the second.
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