A debate that demands compassion

Intensely personal, intensely political, the abortion debate rarely changes minds. The one bright spot: Abortion numbers are falling.


There is no comfortable way to talk about abortion. It divides families, communities, and political parties. It is an intensely personal, often agonizing decision for a woman who faces one. It has moral, social, and legal implications that many people feel are not the exclusive concern of that woman.

In a timely Monitor series (click here), Warren Richey looks at the epicenter of the never-settled abortion issue in the United States, focusing on the tightening of access at Texas abortion clinics and the growth of organizations that counsel women to bring their pregnancies to term. Warren’s report might or might not change your mind about abortion. Positions are pretty fixed on this issue. But at least you’ll see both sides as a result.

If there is good news about abortion, it is this: Fewer take place every year. In 1973, the year of the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, 615,831 abortions took place. That was 196 per 1,000 live births. Before Roe v. Wade, no one knew how many abortions were surreptitiously performed. A woman with money and connections could get one; a poor woman couldn’t. This case put rich and poor women on equal footing.

A decade after legalization, the number of reported abortions had doubled. They peaked in 1990. Other than a few years in which they ticked up, they have been falling ever since. Today, the number of abortions is close to what it was in 1973. There were 210 per 1,000 live births in 2012, the latest year for which data are available. More than 9 out of 10 abortions occur during pregnancies that are less than 13 weeks along.

It is possible that the abortion rate is falling because couples are making smarter choices and because contraception is cheaper (it is covered under the Affordable Care Act). It’s also possible that the abortion rate is falling because access is becoming more difficult and efforts to persuade women to bring their pregnancies to term have become more sophisticated. Either way, fewer abortions are occurring.

Statistics, of course, are never as compelling as personal stories: a woman’s lonely decision; the anger, sorrow, and life-changing consequences that can be part of an unwanted pregnancy; the tensions and dangers of approaching an abortion clinic through a gantlet of protesters; guilt, or relief, a woman might feel terminating a pregnancy; the joy a woman might feel when a child comes into the world. For two decades, a majority of Americans have said abortion should be legal, but only about 15 percent have seen it as morally acceptable.

Feeling sure one way or the other about abortion requires ignoring either one’s head or heart. A woman’s human right is a precious thing. A human life is a precious thing. Even as abortion becomes increasingly rare, the great divide over it is unlikely to be bridged. Long after Roe v. Wade, the woman making this excruciating choice and the child that might or might not result will deserve our utmost compassion.

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