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.