Pro-Life as If People Mattered: Economics Alone Cannot Address Abortion Problem

COMMENTARY: Bad thinking and bad facts that doom the ‘pro-choice’ argument.

Pro-lifers hold signs in front of Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger Clinic on Bleecker Street in New York City on Aug. 22, 2015.
Pro-lifers hold signs in front of Planned Parenthood's Margaret Sanger Clinic on Bleecker Street in New York City on Aug. 22, 2015. (photo: a katz /

There is an old argument used by those who wish to justify voting for “pro-choice” candidates on pro-life grounds that seems to come up every four years. The argument can be persuasive, and those making it I take to be sincerely dedicated to reducing the number of abortions. But the argument suffers from bad thinking and bad facts.

Let me first summarize the argument. It starts with the true claim that the majority of women who seek abortions do so because of economic reasons. Therefore, the argument goes, addressing the economic difficulties of women and families, particularly through increased funding to social-welfare programs, would reduce the rate of abortions. And, since pro-choice candidates often support such increases in funding, they will do and have done more to reduce the number of abortions than pro-life candidates who may be fiscally conservative. Thus, the argument concludes, pro-life Catholics not only can but should vote for them since conservative fiscal policies will inevitably lead to great suffering among the poor and so lead to more abortions.

To back up these conclusions the evidence proffered often includes the fact that under pro-choice presidents the abortion rate in the nation fell significantly, while under pro-life presidents the rate fell very little or not at all. The presumption is that the pro-choice presidents expanded social welfare, causing the abortion rate to drop.

The final piece of the argument is to point to other nations. Finland, Norway and Germany have consistently had abortion rates significantly lower than the U.S. because, it is argued, they have more extensive social safety nets. In all likelihood those robust programs do have an effect on the rate, but the problem with this argument is that facts are provided out of context and are therefore remarkably misleading.

For instance, while it is true that the vast majority of women who seek abortions do so for economic reasons, poverty or economic stress is seldom the only reason given. Women seek abortion because of poverty and, at times, because there is no family support or there is pressure to abort. Women also seek abortions because of poverty and because a child is viewed as a “punishment,” to use the phrase from President Barack Obama. Women seek abortions for myriad reasons, but not all of them are strictly economic. To address the economic issue is not to address the whole person.

What about the significant reduction in abortion rates under pro-choice presidents? While true, it is state not federal legislation that has the greater effect on abortion laws. In 2008 the five states that had the highest voting percentages for Sen. Barack Obama, a pro-choice candidate, were Hawaii, Vermont, New York, Rhode Island and Delaware, all of them solidly “blue states.” Their average abortion rate was 22.6. For pro-life candidate Sen. John McCain’s run that same year, the five states from which he received the highest percentage of votes were Oklahoma, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Alabama, all solidly “red.” The average abortion rate in these states was 6.9.

Abortion rates did fall under Presidents Clinton and Obama; but, starting with Bill Clinton’s taking office in 1993, governorships in the U.S. started to trend Republican, the party which tends to support pro-life legislation. They switched back to majority Democratic, the party with which many pro-choice candidates affiliate, in the last years of President George W. Bush’s second term and the first two of President Obama’s. But then a historic majority of pro-life governors and state legislators arose under Obama during his last six years. It is arguable that the rise of pro-life state legislators who pass pro-life laws has had a greater effect on abortion rates than anything else.

But, one might ask, isn’t there evidence that expanded social safety nets reduced abortion rates? In August 2008 a study was released by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good that claimed this very thing. It was touted at the time as conclusive sociological evidence for the argument in favor of pro-choice candidates who favor expanding welfare. However, Michael New uncovered at the time that there were serious errors in the data and methodology of the study. Since then it has been demonstrated time and again by New and others that pro-life legislation that seeks to limit or delay access to abortion does more to lower the abortion rate than do increases in social-welfare programs. The connection between such pro-life legislation and reduction in the number of abortions is obvious.

Let’s now look again at those other nations. I have little doubt that their robust social safety net has an effect on their abortion rates. But perhaps so does the fact that, in Germany for instance, it is illegal to procure an abortion after the 12th week unless for serious medical reasons. Even within the first trimester a German woman seeking an abortion must wait three days and must go through counseling. All these restrictions to access would be vehemently rejected by many if not all of the pro-choice candidates for U.S. president, and yet certainly Germany’s restrictions have an effect on that country’s abortion rate.

Again, I do not question the sincerity of those who, while voting for pro-choice candidates, desire to lower the number of abortions. However, what many fail to note is that the new standard for pro-choice advocacy is not just unfettered abortion access, but to make abortions free for those who currently cannot pay.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, the relatively high cost of abortions is a deterrent to poor women and so suppresses the abortion rate in the one demographic where abortions are already most common: the poor. If abortions were free, which is what the pro-choice movement insists must happen, then abortion rates would most certainly skyrocket.

Finally, as I have done for years now, I encourage all Catholics to carefully read the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” in order to better understand how we ought to vote. That document makes clear something that is often left out of a conversation that focuses on abortion rates, namely the issue of legal abortion. The bishops write that “a legal system that violates the basic right to life on the grounds of choice is fundamentally flawed.”

Lowering abortion rates is good, but it is not the highest good. We ought never forget that ending the legal killing of the innocent is the goal which we must pursue to the end. Anything less is to accept a fundamental injustice which we directly perpetuate through our legal system.

In the meantime, our intraecclesial conversation about abortion and public policy might be better served by the willingness of all sides to question their own ideological presumptions for a more careful assessment of facts. So let us pray and work together for the poor, for women, for families and for the unborn, that greater justice can be won for all of them without compromising our faith.

Omar Gutierrez is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska.

He is the president and co-founder of the Evangelium Institute.

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