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. 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
(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.
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.