C Rulon: Elective abortions will remain common

By | July 30, 2011

By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College

(Elective abortions will remain a significant post-con­ceptive birth control method regardless of our contraceptive efforts, our anti-abortion laws and our conservative religious beliefs)

Can abortions ever become rare?

Globally, supplying all sexually active fertile people with excel­lent birth con­trol remains a critically impor­tant goal, since half of all preg­nancies in the world are still unplan­ned and mostly un­wanted. About half of these unplanned pregnancies will be aborted, legally or not. But regardless of the world’s birth control efforts and regardless of its anti-abortion laws and religious beliefs, there are many reasons why elective abortions will continue to remain common:

a. Fallible humans: We are very sexual primates. We want sex all the time, not just when females can become pregnant. We are also quite fallible and careless. We make mis­takes. We are into denial, sexual guilt and embarrassment. Then there’s alcohol and other drugs which lubricate sexual behavior, while reducing respon­sibility. In addition, the world is filled with hundreds of millions of young sexually aggressive, deter­­mined, macho males.

b. Contraceptives fail: Some contraceptives that are implanted are close to being perfect. But most con­tra­cep­tives today are not. Any sex­ually active fertile woman who uses a con­tra­cep­tive method that’s 90% effective (which is better than the success rates for foam, condoms, the sponge, the dia­phragm, spermi­cides, withdrawal, and periodic abstinence) still has a one-third chance of an un­wanted preg­nancy after only four years.[1] Even women who use a con­tra­ceptive method that’s 97% effective have a 60% chance of at least one un­plan­ned preg­nancy by age 50.

c. Obstacles: There are also major political, relig­ious, patriarchal, educational and financial obsta­­cles to providing birth control services and education to every­one in need through­out our world. One major obstacle remains the Roman Catholic Church, which continues to block global birth control efforts. The Church has also made it clear that any official attempts to force any of its over 300,000 health facilities world­wide to provide con­tra­cep­tives would result in it with­drawing its vitally need­­ed financial sup­port from these facili­ties.

How about a global “miracle”?

Let’s assume that the planets align, that all major relig­­ious, patri­arch­al, social, finan­cial, and educational obsta­cles to contra­ceptive use suddenly vanish­, and that all of the one and a half bil­lion sexually active fer­tile women worldwide had easy access to birth control. Let’s further assume that this birth control had only a 3% human failure rate/year (much lower than most methods currently in use). Would abortions finally become rare? Hardly! Three per­cent of one and a half billion women still trans­lates into about 45 million women every year with unplanned pregnancies. If his­tory is any guide, roughly half will choose to abort, legal or not. Now 20+ million abortions/year is cer­tainly a big improve­ment over our current 40-45 mil­lion, but hardly rare. And this is only with a worldwide “miracle”!

Western Europe’s effort to reduce unwanted pregnancies

Most countries in Western Europe remain determined to lower their teen pregnancy rates, fight poverty, increase the health of their women and child­ren, and promote strong families. Con­tra­­cep­tive services (often free of charge), plus in-depth sex edu­ca­tion are pro­vided to all. Early abor­tions are mostly viewed as a health issue (certainly not a sinful or criminal act) and are often paid for by the state. But they are also viewed as a last resort to be prevented if possible. To minimize the financial pressure to abort, many West­ern Euro­pean coun­tries also provide consid­erable finan­cial aid, child-care services and job security to pregnant women. The result is that, although European teens are as sexual as American teens, they are much more responsible when it comes to using excellent birth control. Teenage preg­nancy rates in West­ern Europe range from one-fourth to one-tenth of ours.

Still, with all their efforts, unwant­ed pregnancies and abor­tions are not rare in Western Europe. France, for exam­ple, still has roughly 340,000 unplanned pregnancies and over 170,000 abortions a year. Contraceptives are not perfect and humans are still….well, human. So even if the U.S. copied France with the same success rate, this still translates into over 700,000 abortions a year. Now, 700,000 elective abortions a year is certainly an improvement over our current number of around 1.3 million, but hardly rare. And this is only if we did everything France is doing.

Now if we also aggressively promoted the “morning-after pill” ( which conservative religious/political powerful men continue to try to outlaw), the U.S. could potentially cut its number of un­inten­ded pregnan­cies in half. But that still means, at best, sever­al hun­dred thousand abortions a year, hardly rare.

Is the U.S. effort a disgrace?

With our wealth, science, educa­tional oppor­tunities and excellent contra­ceptive options, un­want­ed preg­nancies should now be at least as low as in W. Europe. Yet, instead, about half of all preg­nancies in the United States are still unplan­ned. This is as bad as the global average. So every year over one fifth of all pregnancies in the U.S. are electively termi­nated. That’s roughly 1.3 million abortions. The abortion rate for Black women is five times higher than among White women; for Latinas it’s three times higher. Poverty is a major factor.

So, why is our teen pregnancy rate and birth rate so much higher than in other developed nations? Mostly because ever since the marriage of the Christian Right to the Repub­li­can Party in the late 1970s, conservative Repub­li­cans in the U.S. Congress and the White House have consist­ently and effectively oppos­ed sex education and the distri­bution of con­tra­ceptives to teens. Funding for contra­ceptive re­search was dra­ma­tically reduced and birth control ads on television have been blocked for decades. Teens were (and continue to be) taught to “Just Say No” — an approach repeatedly proven to have a high failure rate.

Birthrate per 1,000 girls ages 15-19
U.S. 42.5
Canada 13.3
Spain 11.5
Germany 10.1
France 7.8
Italy 7.0
Sweden 5.9
Japan 5.1
Switzerland 4.5
Netherlands 3.8

(TIME, March 30, 2009)

Some concluding thoughts

Elective abortions continue to be one of the most common surgical procedures in the U.S., terminating over one in five pregnancies, not count­ing miscarriages. Over one-fifth of all women in the U.S. have had at least one abortion by age 48. Pro-choice politicians refer to their goal of making abor­tion safe, legal and rare by greatly improving birth con­trol educa­tion, plus the availability of contraceptives and emer­gency contraception.

Yet, because humans are quite fallible, because contraception is far from perfect, and because power­ful patriarchal, anti-birth control religions continue to exist, abortions are not going to become rare in the foreseeable future anywhere on our planet. Instead, short of something like a reversible anti-fertility vaccine administered to all girls before puberty, abortion will remain a significant post-con­ceptive birth control method — a method essential for insuring female equality and the birth of only wanted children. As mature adults, we must learn to deal with this reality.

Now for the first time ever in our extremely long evolu­tionary history, more and more women through­out the world are finally able to control their own repro­ductive futures instead of having fate, or patri­archal/religious forces decide. In many ways, this reproductive control is as impor­tant for the survival of the human species as our learning to control fire.

[1]0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 x 0.9 = 0.66= 2/3rds chance of not becoming pregnant in 4 years = 1/3 chance of becoming pregnant.

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