By Randall K. O’Bannon Ph.D., NRL-ETF Director of Education & Research
Editor’s note. This story appeared in the Winter issue of National Right to Life News. If you are not subscribing to NRL News, please call us at 202 626 8828.
While nothing captures the incalculable human loss, it can be said that the story of war–its victories, its losses, its flow–can be tracked by its numbers. And while we would never reduce the abortion holocaust America has endured to mere numbers, we can look at the last 40 years of abortion statistics to get some idea of the state and progress of efforts to restore respect and legal protection for the lives of the unborn.
As of today, we know that more than 55 million have perished in this war on the unborn. But while this assault has been relentless, it has not necessarily been a steady or un-thwartable attack. Policies, funding, and the marketing of new methods have made the numbers of abortions go up. New laws, public education, and the offer of life-affirming alternatives have made the numbers go down.
Thus one can see where we’ve been, where we’re going, and where we’ve got work to do by looking more closely at the numbers. And hopefully, our efforts will be more fruitful for it.
There were abortions before Roe v. Wade. Not as many as the other side likes to pretend, but there were states which legalized abortion before the Supreme Court’s decision in 1973 and places where abortions were performed illegally. But the numbers mushroomed in the wake of Roe, going from 744,600 in that first year after Roe and more than doubling before the decade ended, reaching 1,497,700 by 1979.
Though the pro-life community organized and became active soon after the first states began to legalize abortion, those early years largely belonged to the expanding abortion establishment, especially given the funding it received from the federal government. By 1976, the federal Medicaid program was paying for close to 300,000 abortions annually, inflating national totals, with the number on the rise.
One of the pro-life movement’s first substantial victories came when Henry Hyde, a pro-life congressman from Illinois, offered an amendment to the annual Health and Human Services appropriation bill prohibiting the use of any of those funds for performing abortions. It passed, but was in and out of the courts before finally being ruled constitutional in 1980. Though the number of abortions would go up or down by tens of thousands over the next decade, it is worth noting that the rapid rise seen in the 1970s halted when the Hyde Amendment took effect.
How big a difference did the Hyde Amendment make? In a 1993 letter to California congressman Vic Fazio, Robert Reischauer, director of the Congressional Budget Office, said that if Medicaid funded abortion to the same extent it covered other pregnancy services (essentially the policy in place before Hyde), “the federal government would probably fund between 325,000 and 675,000 abortions each year.”
There were other pro-life efforts that had an impact. Supreme Court decisions in 1979 (Bellotti v. Baird (II)) and 1981 (HL v. Matheson) gave the states leeway to pass parental involvement legislation, requiring that a teen’s parents be notified of her intent to get an abortion or give permission for the abortion to proceed. While abortion numbers remained relatively stable throughout the 1980s, varying between 1.5 and 1.6 million a year, it is worth noting that abortions to teens began dropping as early as 1981 with their abortions accounting for a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall number.
Other things were happening on the technological and cultural fronts. The proliferation of ultrasonography not only confirmed what pro-lifers had said about the humanity of the unborn child, but helped to educate the general public about that fact every time a beaming young pregnant mother brought out the ultrasound picture of her baby and passed it around the office. Fetal heartbeat stethoscopes made plain for anyone willing to listen that abortion did indeed stop a beating heart. The media validated pro-life claims with widely watched features and documentaries on fetal development.
Pregnancy care centers (or as they were known then, crisis pregnancy centers) popped up all over the country as pro-lifers looked for practical ways to challenge abortion in their communities. They offered women life-affirming alternatives to abortion.
All these factors gave the pro-life effort a certain momentum that was soon to show a tangible impact.
While abortions peaked at 1,608,600 in 1990, there were already indications that the numbers were dropping. Abortion rates (the number of abortions per thousand women of reproductive age 15-44) and ratios (calculated differently by different statisticians, but some ratio of abortions to live births) both began to drop in the 1980s, but really saw declines in the 1990s.
Raw numbers of abortions themselves began to fall sharply in 1990s, dropping from 1.6 million a year to about 1.3 million in 1998, just a few years later. Notable during this time frame was the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) allowing states to pass informed consent, or “right to know” laws, ensuring that pregnant women seeking abortions knew of the abortion’s risk, the developmental stage of their unborn children, and alternatives and assistance available to them.
It should not be forgotten that it was also during this period that a ban on partial-birth abortion first began to be discussed. Though the bill itself did not become law until receiving President George W. Bush’s signature in 2003, and was not declared constitutional by the Supreme Court until 2007, legislative discussions of the heinous procedure began back in 1995. That lengthy debate for the first time forced many in the mainstream media to actually discuss what an abortion was and what it did to the unborn child.
Declines have continued into the 2000s, until the point today where the annual figure is closer to 1.2 million a year, still too much by any counting, but a 25% drop from numbers seen just 20 years ago. Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control’s 2009 Abortion Surveillance, the latest national report, indicate another big drop could be in the offing.
Though hampered by reliance on the reports of state health departments, and missing data from states such as abortion giant California since at least 1998, the federal agency, also known as the CDC, provides valuable demographic data on abortion. Moreover, its raw numbers roughly track those obtained by the private research group Guttmacher Institute, which surveys abortionists directly, though less frequently.
CDC figures for 2009 show nearly a 5% drop from the previous year. Whether this is some statistical anomaly or indication of the initiation of a new long-term trend, only time will tell. Factors such as the sudden economic downturn can have an impact, as do falling pregnancy rates, but so do new pieces of legislation such as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act or ultrasound viewing laws that have passed in recent years.
It does not necessarily portend easy sailing in the years ahead. Each time the pro-life movement has had a triumph, there has been a push back from the pro-abortion side. We elect pro-life political leaders, they elect supporters of abortion. We do grassroots organizing, they mobilize the media and Hollywood celebrities. We watch an old dirty clinic close, they open a giant new modern abortion mega-center. We ban a method of abortion, they come up with a new abortion technology, such as web-cam abortions with abortion pills like RU-486.
That we have made the progress against a well-financed opposition is a testimony to the dedication of our people and the rightness of our cause.
The statistics show us areas where we have much more work to do. While we have seen abortion rates drop sharply among white women, rates are still extremely high for African-American women and are on the increase for Hispanics. The progress we have made with teens aborting less often means that aborting women are trending older. In addition statistics from both Guttmacher and the CDC indicate that about 60% of aborting women have already given birth to at least one child.
But the numbers do not lie. Thanks to your unceasing efforts, we have made considerable progress. There are millions of children alive today who would have perished if trends had continued as they were, if pro-lifers had not been there with legislation, education, outreach, and practical help.
That’s quite a living legacy to build on.