The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Abortion Facts

published September 2018

Education and birth control are slowly making the politics less relevant

Scientific American (cover)

In May of this year the pro-life/pro-choice controversy leapt back into headlines when Ireland overwhelmingly approved a referendum to end its constitutional ban on abortion. Around the same time, the Trump administration proposed that Title X federal funding be withheld from abortion clinics as a tactic to reduce the practice, a strategy similar to that of Texas and other states to shut down clinics by burying them in an avalanche of regulations, which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2016 as an undue burden on women for a constitutionally guaranteed right. If the goal is to attenuate abortions, a better strategy is to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Two methods have been proposed: abstinence and birth control.

Abstinence would obviate abortions just as starvation would forestall obesity. There is a reason no one has proposed chastity as a solution to overpopulation. Sexual asceticism doesn’t work, because physical desire is nearly as fundamental as food to our survival and flourishing. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health entitled “Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy” found that among American adolescents ages 15 to 19, “abstinence-only education did not reduce the likelihood of engaging in vaginal intercourse” and that “adolescents who received comprehensive sex education had a lower risk of pregnancy than adolescents who received abstinence-only or no sex education.” A 2011 PLOS ONE paper analyzing “Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates” in 48 U.S. states concluded that “increasing emphasis on abstinence education is positively correlated with teenage pregnancy and birth rates,” controlling for socioeconomic status, educational attainment and ethnicity.

Most telling, a 2013 paper entitled “Like a Virgin (Mother): Analysis of Data from a Longitudinal, US Population Representative Sample Survey,” published in BMJ reported that 45 of the 7,870 American women studied between 1995 and 2009 said they become pregnant without sex. Who were these immaculately conceiving parthenogenetic Marys? They were twice as likely as other pregnant women to have signed a chastity pledge, and they were significantly more likely to report that their parents had difficulties discussing sex or birth control with them.

When women are educated and have access to birth-control technologies, pregnancies and, eventually, abortions decrease. A 2003 study on the “Relationships between Contraception and Abortion,” published in International Family Planning Perspectives, concluded that abortion rates declined as contraceptive use increased in seven countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Bulgaria, Turkey, Tunisia and Switzerland). In six other nations (Cuba, Denmark, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea and the U.S.), contraceptive use and abortion rates rose simultaneously, but overall levels of fertility were falling during the period studied. After fertility levels stabilized, contraceptive use continued to increase, and abortion rates fell.

Something similar happened in Turkey between 1988 and 1998, when abortion rates declined by almost half when unreliable forms of birth control (for one, the rhythm method) were replaced by more modern technologies (for example, condoms). Public health consultant Pinar Senlet, who conducted the 2001 study published in International Family Planning Perspectives, and her colleagues reported that “marked reductions in the number of abortions have been achieved in Turkey through improved contraceptive use rather than increased use.”

To be fair, the multivariable mesh of correlations in all these studies makes inferring direct causal links difficult for social scientists to untangle. But as I read the research, when women have limited sex education and no access to contraception, they are more likely to get pregnant, which leads to higher abortion rates. When women are educated about and have access to effective contraception, as well as legal and medically safe abortions, they initially use both strategies to control family size, after which contraception alone is often all that is needed and abortion rates decline.

Admittedly, deeply divisive moral issues are involved. Abortion does end a human life, so it should not be done without grave consideration for what is at stake, as we do with capital punishment and war. Likewise, the recognition of equal rights, especially reproductive rights, should be acknowledged by all liberty-loving people. But perhaps progress for all human life could be more readily realized if we were to treat abortion as a problem to be solved rather than a moral issue over which to condemn others. As gratifying as the emotion of moral outrage is, it does little to bend the moral arc toward justice.

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21 Comments to “Abortion Facts”

  1. Dave Says:

    Abortion does end a[n innocent] human life, so it should not be done without grave consideration for what is at stake, as we do with [the guilty in] capital punishment and war [with the exception of “collateral damage”].

    But perhaps progress for all human life could be more readily realized if we were to treat [slavery] as a problem to be solved rather than a moral issue over which to condemn others. As gratifying as the emotion of moral outrage is, it does little to bend the moral arc toward justice.

  2. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    I like Dr Mike’s reasoning, it just makes sense that lowering the number of unwanted pregnancies would reduce the number of abortions. I’d like to think that people from all sides could come together in supporting this. However, the past few decades have left me cynical (not skeptical) about humanity. People like to fight – the topic is less important than the fight.

    My Bible thumping relatives hate birth control, too – they conflate contraceptives like The Pill with abortion inducing medicine, like RU-486 – and fight for sex education to be taken out of schools. One can speculate about their ‘true motives’ but it’s apparent that many will find a reason to oppose any workable solution.

    The political fight may be irrelevant but it won’t stop.

  3. Gary Whittenberger Says:

    “Abortion does end a human life, so it should not be done without grave consideration for what is at stake, as we do with capital punishment and war.”

    GW: I think this is a dangerous overgeneralization. Only when the aborted organism would be a person should there be “grave consideration.” Otherwise not.

    “But perhaps progress for all human life could be more readily realized if we were to treat abortion as a problem to be solved rather than a moral issue over which to condemn others.”

    GW: Perhaps, but probably not. I think this progress would be more readily realized if abortion were treated both as a problem and a moral issue. In certain circumstances there should be more abortions, not less. For example, a woman who is a drug addict and wants to get an abortion should get one, despite the urging of her religious parents.

  4. John Little, Sr. Says:

    little2jp@msn.com

    Abstinence is, of course, a way to avoid unwanted pregnancies. However, beyond the risky prevention pills and the slippery application of rubbers, two pregnancy prevention methods are relative safe for those who do not want to remove themselves from meaningful sexual encounters. These methods typically are called tube ties and vasectomies. From where I sit, unless a serious medical condition exists, these procedures should be voluntary. The question, at hand then is how to get volunteers. The answer is to pay for the procedures, and then give incentive money to those having them. My suggestion is to pay, with charitable or government funds, $500 for a tube tying and $100 for a vasectomy.

  5. Dr. Sidethink Says:

    I am 82 Radical left non practicing Catholic

    “Abortion has always been a ” Civil Liberties position meaning of the term is justifying a decision regarded as criminal as an

    ” How about them Dodgers)A

  6. MBDK Says:

    Gary Whittenberger Says:
    (QUOTE) Only when the aborted organism would be a person should there be “grave consideration.” Otherwise not. (UNQUOTE)

    I disagree. The definition of a person is arbitrary in this instance. It is merely a justification used to placate what COULD be construed as murder. The actual science regarding the beginning of consciousness is murky, and I think humanity should err on the side of caution. In my opinion, attitudes like yours seem prejudiced by self-serving convenience rather than any moral concerns.

    Now, do I have a alternate solution? Only inasmuch as I do agree with the methods described in the article. I would like to see easier, safer, and more accessible and effective methods of birth control developed that would prevent pregnancy from the start.

  7. Gram Mar Says:

    If any woman is pregnant with a baby inside her body, only she — and no one else — may decide what to do with her body, including the baby, for as long as that baby, at any stage of the development, is inside her body, assuming ‘ALL ELSE IS EQUAL’. The ultimate morality is found in respecting the woman as the sole person in charge of herself, herbody (<—- YES, JUST ONE WORD).

    The condition 'ALL ELSE IS EQUAL' is crucial here! For example, if she has an agreement and a mutual understanding with her partner to nurture her baby for as long as the baby is inside her until birth (and thereafter), then she shall not mistreat the baby or abort the pregnancy. There must be certain consequences — specified and known in advance — imposed upon the woman if she violates the agreement and mutual understanding by aborting the pregnancy.

  8. MBDK Says:

    Gram Mar Says:
    “only she — and no one else — may decide what to do with her body”

    Nice memorization of the indoctrination. Your “all else is equal” part ignores the fact that she is ending a human life that is not hers. The “crucial” part is your trivializing of that fact. That human life currently has no say in the matter, so all things are far from equal. If a woman (or man) were healthy and wanted to commit suicide, the moral thing to do would be to prevent that. The “my body, my choice” argument fails here. The distinctions made by those in favor of abortion is purely self-centered.

  9. ACW Says:

    I’m pro-choice and agree with almost everything in this column. But: ‘almost’. Shermer writes: ‘Abstinence would obviate abortions just as starvation would forestall obesity.’ He continues: ‘ … physical desire is nearly as fundamental as food to our survival and flourishing’. Ah, there’s that fershlugginer reservation: ‘nearly’. The difference is one that makes a difference. Certain functions are essential to life; food, water, sleep are among them. You will die without these. Other drives are entirely non-essential, that is, things most normal people can take or leave; e.g., gambling, watching Game of Thrones. Sex, however, is a strange one, with one foot in each sphere. It is necessary to continue the species, but not to any given individual; therefore it has the feel of an essential drive in the same class as food or water, but it isn’t essential, in that an individual human can live a long healthy life without it; moreover, a surprising number of humans have little or no sex drive, and are abstinent, sometimes for life, yet not only do they not die, they are often quite content, while an anorexic will sooner or later — probably sooner — die if he or she doesn’t eat. Add to that the fact that this need for sex varies in an individual lifetime. Many people are glad to age out of sex. Sophocles (who was supposedly very handsome and quite the devil with the lads in his youth), George Bernard Shaw (who didn’t lose his virginity till his late 20s, married in his 40s, and was in a sexless but not loveless marriage for more than 40 years), and Canadian novelist Robertson Davies (typical hetero family: wife and two daughters) — three great writers all said late in life that the best thing about getting old (other, of course, than not being dead yet) was to be free of what one called ‘the tyranny of sex’.

    Additionally, even in basic drives, humans in societies are expected to exercise some control. We all have to eat, but there are times and places in which you are expected not to eat, and certain edible substances custom or tradition expects you to partake of or not, depending on culture, and table manners (yes, even in America some people still have manners). We all have to eliminate the waste products of eating and drinking, but one of the first things our parents do is toilet train us. And eating, peeing and pooping, unlike sex, are things you can’t go your entire life without doing.

    Yes, teenagers are young and impulsive. But we still expect them to observe self-control over other primal urges. (If your kids are running around feral, sleeping and eating and peeing and pooping and wearing clothes or not as the mood strikes them, even aside from sex, with no observance of voluntary social norms, remind me not to come visit your house.) The ‘Me Too’ movement pretty much assumes that people, at least male ones, even young ones, are expected to curb their sexual impulses (or when they get nominated to the Supreme Court it may come back to haunt them).

    That ‘almost’ is a difference that makes a difference. There are many good arguments for birth control and for the availability of abortion as a private choice that belongs by right to the woman; but simply saying, as Shermer does, because people really, really wanna have sex and it’s unreasonable to expect them to control their urges, is not among those arguments.

  10. ACW Says:

    Fellow commenter John Little Sr. says: ‘two pregnancy prevention methods are relative safe for those who do not want to remove themselves from meaningful sexual encounters.’ He names these as tubal ligation and vasectomy.
    I have nothing against either, but I’m a 63-year-old woman with a bit of mileage on her odometer, having been around more than one block. And I can think of several ‘meaningful sexual encounters’ one can have without surgical sterilization of either partner, or a visit to the doctor for a prescription, or even a trip to the pharmacy counter.
    Without being too explicitly crude, if we define ‘standard’ as ‘heterosexual missionary’ the alternatives merely require either redeployment of the equipment in nonstandard configurations and/or operation, or selecting a partner who is him/herself ‘nonstandard’ but who is physiologically complementary if those nonstandard configurations and/or procedures are employed.
    This is a science publication: go, experiment.

  11. Gabriel Says:

    ACW, you said “but simply saying, as Shermer does, because people really, really wanna have sex and it’s unreasonable to expect them to control their urges, is not among those arguments.”

    That is not what Shermer said. What he did say was:”Sexual asceticism doesn’t work…”

    The whole article was reasonable look at which solutions have had better results than others
    You did make an excellent case against your straw man and for potty training children.

  12. BillG Says:

    A solution to a better world? Empower women. Especially in Muslim and third world countries – with a pleasant side effect of less, not more abortions.

  13. Gram Mar Says:

    MBDK wrote:

    “If a woman (or man) were healthy and wanted to commit suicide, the moral thing to do would be to prevent that.”

    I agree not an iota less! Yes, we should intervene to prevent commission of suicide. Nonetheless, the ultimate decision to end his/her life is exclusively his/hers whether he/she is healthy or not so healthy.

    When a woman aborts her pregnancy, thus killing her baby inside her, the death of the baby is a consequence of the woman’s treatment of her body. If it’s murder, let her reach that realization in her own way. While everyone has a right to persuade the pregnant woman of the immorality of her intended abortion and in the process to prevent the commission of an abortion, no one has the right to abridge her freedom of choice and action in this matter. We shall not — the outsiders — impose upon her any punishment of any sort. The moral thing to do is to let her live her life and treat her body — with or without a baby inside her — as she pleases.

  14. George Says:

    Women do not carry BABIES inside their bodies. They carry fetuses inside their bodies. Fetuses become babies when they are born or cut out close enough to term. Quite often we have to make extraordinary efforts to keep fetuses alive so they can turn into babies. So, when a woman aborts, she aborts a fetus, not a baby. Pro-Fetus people never understand that.

    Some girls (and boys), especially in the SE of the USA, have no idea how babies are made. Boys, being boys, will tell a girl ANYTHING to get her to have sex with them. That’s how they like it in the SE and many other isolated communities in the USA. When the ignorant lttle girl gets pregnant, the community has an opportunity to brand her as a whore, which they willingly do since they are no longer allowed to burn witches. That tends to ruin her life unless she is very strong. Nothing at all is done to the boy whose identity is often unknown. But the other significant thing is the Pro-Fetus people who, after showering the young girl with flowery phrases about giving birth and, mostly, lying to her, desert her and the baby as soon as it is born. Except to start referring to her as a whore, of course.

  15. Patrick Stirling Says:

    #8 MBDK comments “If a woman (or man) were healthy and wanted to commit suicide, the moral thing to do would be to prevent that.”
    Ahh but as always the devil’s in the details. Just as how do you define when a fetus becomes a person, how do you define “healthy”? Who gets to decide?

  16. David Ord Says:

    It doesn’t seem to occur to those with religious underpinnings for their anti-abortion stance that if you believe in God, by far the biggest abortionist is this God. How many women–in many cases who would love to have a child–experience the death of a life that has begun in them? We call this “miscarriage,” which is a nice way of saying that God murdered the life God himself started. The idea that God causes a particular sperm and egg to come together, out of the countless sperm in an ejaculation, and thereby gives life is of course quite ridiculous. Whether you believe that a creator originated the process or not, once originated the process is partly up to us and partly up to pure chance. When you say that God is opposed to abortion, tell that to the millions of women who have been deprived of a child because God killed their child.

  17. MBDK Says:

    Gram Mar Says:
    “Nonetheless, the ultimate decision to end his/her life is exclusively his/hers whether he/she is healthy or not so healthy”

    As is the decision of any one who takes a life.

    “If it’s murder, let her reach that realization in her own way”

    Just like any murderer does?

    “no one has the right to abridge her freedom of choice and action in this matter”

    Yes. According to the supreme court, but legality is a far cry from morality, as you have noted.

    “We shall not — the outsiders — impose upon her any punishment of any sort. The moral thing to do is to let her live her life and treat her body — with or without a baby inside her — as she pleases”

    And if that baby had a voice, its thoughts would be? The difference, IMHO, is that most pro-abortion people (and this in itself does NOT by itself justify my point) also, support the “natural” ways of life. Abortion (for a healthy fetus) is as unnatural as it gets, and doing as one pleases is fine, as long as you are not harming someone else. Murder is murder, whether legal or not (I oppose the death penalty). Just as Jim Crow laws were racist, despite their legality. I ask for your justification for the unforced decision to kill a healthy fetus that does NOT involve pure selfishness on the part of the decision maker.

    Laws and terminology have been changed to placate the morally deficient.

  18. MBDK Says:

    George Says:
    “Women do not carry BABIES inside their bodies. They carry fetuses inside their bodies. Fetuses become babies when they are born or cut out close enough to term”

    A legal term subject to whimsy. What is the scientific consensus? Hint: Uncertain. So YOU decide to lean in favor of the most convenient definition for your own morally ambiguous belief. I get that. But do not pretend to KNOW when consciousness (a.k.a. humanity) occurs.

    “So, when a woman aborts, she aborts a fetus, not a baby. Pro-Fetus people never understand that.”

    No. We understand that you are using fairly capricious (and scientifically unproven) terminology to justify your cavalier attitude for the life of an unborn child. You can call an endangered species a rat so you can kill it. That does NOT make it right.

    “Some girls (and boys), especially in the SE of the USA, have no idea how babies are made”

    So just kill the unborn baby – what a great humanitarian outlook. Killing is the best answer to ignorance that you can come up with.

    “Nothing at all is done to the boy whose identity is often unknown”

    Completely untrue if the identity IS known. However, DNA testing works pretty good.

    “Pro-Fetus people who, after showering the young girl with flowery phrases about giving birth and, mostly, lying to her, desert her and the baby as soon as it is born. Except to start referring to her as a whore, of course.”

    Example? (I seriously doubt you will EVER provide a credible one).

  19. MBDK Says:

    Patrick Stirling Says:
    “but as always the devil’s in the details. Just as how do you define when a fetus becomes a person, how do you define “healthy”? Who gets to decide?”

    Indeed. As a morally responsible person, knowing the scientific definitions are far from set, I believe that defaulting to the position of caring for a life is the only justifiable recourse. I have yet to see a pro-choice argument, for a healthy pregnancy, that is imbued with humanitarian concerns for the unborn child. Their whole argument is hinged on definitions agreed upon by non-subject matter experts. IMHO, that is just self-gratifying ignorance.

  20. Gram Mar Says:

    MBDK wrote:

    I agree that “Murder is murder, whether legal or not …” The pregnant woman who aborts her pregnancy may or may not believe that she murders the baby inside her. Even if she gets to murder the baby inside her, she has the final say. Even if she does so for purely selfish reasons, she has the final say. Whether of not the baby had any voice in the matter, if ever, the woman has the final say even if she believes it is murder that she commits by aborting her pregnancy. You have every right to condemn her immoral abortion, but you — and I — shall not abridge her rights and sovereignty over her own body nor shall we dare to impose punishment upon her. The baby inside the womb — fortunately or unfortunately — doesn’t get to choose. That’s how it is, and perhaps, that’s how it should. The woman’s rights and ownership of her body — pregnant or not — reign supreme as they should!

    So, it seems to me that in quite a few points you and I find some agreement in a larger backdrop disagreements. I certainly don’t want to see anyone murdered, including unborn babies. But making moral decisions between difficult and unfortunate alternatives is not always difficult. I find this to be an issue that is best decided on by the pregnant woman although outsiders like us should feel free to bring their views to bear on the matter.

    Thank you for all your comments.

  21. Kathryn Kemp Says:

    Most abortions take place before the fetus has developed a brain; it is not yet a true person with self-awareness.

    Late term abortions are usually done when the fetus has catastrophic defects that would prevent survival after delivery. Deceased fetuses are aborted. The mothers in these cases would prefer to deliver a healthy baby, but in addition to their private tragedy, the may have to contend with self-righteous fanatics at the clinic door.

    There is no simple answer to the issue. In the end, a woman must deal with the morality of her choice. No one else has this right.

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