Last Monday marked the 34th anniversary of a national tragedy - the Supreme Court's verdict in Roe v. Wade, which enshrined abortion as a constitutional right. It's easy, of course, for antiabortion nutcases (like me) to see Roe as a gruesome event. For us Manichean types, abortion is murder, case closed.
But not everyone is as simpleminded. People of sophisticated thinking see in abortion a bundle of conflicting moral imperatives, ranging from gender equality to sexual freedom to victims' rights.
It's at the micro-level of individual abortions where these moral conflicts manifest: The 17-year-old girl from the inner city who was going to be the first in her family to go to college, until she became accidentally pregnant; the woman who becomes pregnant as a byproduct of rape; the girl who gets pregnant in the course of being abused by her father/uncle/minister. You know the drill. These are the archetypes that have been used to sell abortion to the American public for the last 34 years.
But if you pull back to a higher altitude, you see a different picture of abortion, a picture so stark it should horrify even sensitive, sensible secular humanists.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 1973, 3.1 million babies were born in America. Over the next three decades, that number rose slightly. In 1984, there were nearly 3.7 million babies born. In 1990, the number peaked at 4.16 million babies. For most of the '90s, the number hovered just under 4 million births per year. In 2004, there were 4.11 million live births.
So if we are talking about between 3 million and 4 million babies being born each year since Roe, how many abortions would you guess there have been?
The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that in 1973, there were 744,600 abortions. And as Roe's ripples spread through American culture, that number grew. In 1984, there were just under 1.58 million abortions - remember, that's against 3.7 million births. In 1990, there were just over 1.6 million abortions. In 2004, the number dipped down to about 1.3 million abortions.
So when we talk about abortion after Roe, we're not talking about a few hard cases here and there, where the situation is morally complex. We're talking about a wholesale industry. Since Roe, of the pregnancies either "terminated" or brought to live births, somewhere between 24 percent and 30 percent have ended in abortion every single year since 1976. That's an entire generation of Americans - more than 48 million babies - who were conceived and then destroyed. To put this in perspective, the baby-boom generation - the largest in our nation's history - comprised about 75 million babies.
You don't have to be a crazy person to see something disturbing in these numbers.
And the deeper you get into the data, the more unsettling they are. It becomes clear that in many cases, abortion isn't the product of one of those soul-rending moral conundrums. Instead, it's just what the slogans say it is: a choice.
Most women who get abortions aren't teenagers. In 1973, girls 19 years old or younger accounted for 32 percent of abortions. But that percentage steadily dropped even as the total number of abortions increased. By 1998, 19-year-olds and younger accounted for less than 20 percent of abortions. The 20- to 24-year-old cohort accounts for about 32 percent of abortions, and that rate has been reasonably constant since Roe. The real growth in abortions has been among women 25 years old or older. In 1973, they accounted for 35 percent of abortions. By 2003, they accounted for 49 percent of abortions. Nearly a fifth of all abortions are requested by married women.
Also, abortion is often not a onetime thing - a terrible mistake from which women learn a difficult lesson. According to the CDC, in 2003 - a fairly typical year - 43.6 percent of abortions were performed on women who had previously had one or more abortions. It seems as though many women view abortion as simply a contraceptive of last resort.
In fact, the numbers show that the individual abortion usually does not involve one of those tragic, heart-wrenching archetypes. Rather, it is simply a matter of an adult woman deciding she doesn't want to be burdened with bearing the child she has created. A 2005 survey in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health reported that in 93 percent of all cases, mothers cited "social" concerns as the primary reason for aborting their children.
In other areas, we worry about the disparate impact policies have on minorities, but very few people note how especially hard America's black community has been hit by abortion. In 2003, among white women, there were 165 abortions for every 1,000 live births. Among black women, the ratio was 300 percent greater, with 491 abortions for every 1,000 babies born. Yet we rarely hear about the unconscionable number of black children who never have a chance to live.
In the face of all these numbers, a reasonable person might still want to preserve some access to abortion. After all, we can't all be puritanical zealots. But even good-hearted Kantians must shudder when they survey the enormous, deadening scope of the world Roe has wrought.
Contact Jonathan V. Last at firstname.lastname@example.org.