When William Wilberforce rose in Parliament on the evening of May 11, 1789 to give his maiden speech against the slave trade, he argued that the trade was both inhumane and unnecessary for the British economy. His words were part of a conscious strategy that began in 1787, when the British Abolition Committee “concluded that the general, moral case against the slave trade had been made and that the way to induce a positive readiness to end the trade was to demonstrate that it was impolitic as well as unjust and inhumane.” Consequently, the Committee “more particularly directed their attention to the plea of political necessity which is frequently urged to justify . . . this traffic.” As the historian Roger Anstey observed, this was the beginning of a conscious program of “advocacy which was henceforth to be frequent in the whole abolition campaign.” That program took twenty years, until Parliament abolished the slave trade throughout the Empire in 1807.
The cause for life in America has yet to reach the second stage. The argument that the unborn are human lives has been largely won. It is now time for a coherent, sustained, and concerted effort to demonstrate that abortion is “impolitic”—bad for women as well as the unborn. As was the case with the slave trade, such a program is needed to counter the notion among many Americans that abortion is a “necessary evil.” In carrying their argument to Middle America, pro–lifers must go beyond preaching to the anti–abortion choir: they need to make their case in ways that appeal to those who are currently undecided or conflicted on the issue. As Chesterton put it, “We must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds, and not ours.”
A 1991 Gallup Poll on “Abortion and Moral Beliefs” found that 77 percent of Americans believe that abortion is at least the taking of human life, if not murder itself. More specifically, 49 percent considered abortion “murder,” while an additional 28 percent thought of it as “the taking of human life.” Several more recent polls confirm that virtually half of all Americans consider abortion to be “murder.” As sociologists James Davison Hunter and Carl Bowman rightly conclude, “The majority of Americans morally disapprove of the majority of abortions currently performed.”
Yet while many Americans believe abortion is wrong, they also believe it should remain legal. The Chicago Tribune aptly summarized the situation in a September 1996 editorial: “Most Americans are uncomfortable with all–or–nothing policies on abortion. They generally shy away from proposals to ban it in virtually all circumstances, but neither are they inclined to make it available on demand no matter what the circumstances. They regard it, at best, as a necessary evil.”
If Middle America—as Hunter calls the 60 percent in the ideological middle—sees abortion as an evil, why is it thought to be “necessary”? While the 1991 Gallup Poll did not probe this question specifically, it did make clear that it is not because Middle America sees abortion as necessary to secure equal opportunity for women. For example, less than 30 percent believe abortion is acceptable in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would require a teenager to drop out of school (and the number drops below 20 percent if the abortion takes place after three months). Likewise, less than 20 percent support abortion in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would interrupt a woman’s career (and that support drops to 10 percent after three months).
Instead, many Americans may see abortion as “necessary” to preserve women’s health—and this despite the fact that such a view is based on easily refuted misperceptions. In fact, during our unprecedented experiment in abortion–on–demand over the past three decades, the health of untold numbers of women has actually been damaged. This is thoroughly documented in a recent book by Elizabeth Ring–Cassidy and Ian Gentles, Women’s Health after Abortion: The Medical and Psychological Evidence (2002). First, there is the direct harm of abortion to women—short term and long term. Women still die from legal abortion, and short–term harm may include infection and damaged reproductive organs. Long–term harm includes risk of infertility, psychological trauma, and increased risk of breast cancer (at the very least, from the delay of a first full–term pregnancy). In addition, there is the broader impact of indirect harm to women’s health. Abortion directly and substantially fosters an attitude and a culture of sexual irresponsibility. The rise in sexually transmitted diseases, including pelvic inflammatory disease, and the rise in hospitalizations for ectopic pregnancies show the results.
Behind the slogans about women’s freedom is the disaster of disordered lives. The social experiment with abortion has aggravated the very problems—like illegitimacy, child abuse, and domestic abuse—that it promised to solve. It has isolated women in their pregnancies and made them more vulnerable to violent abuse from uncommitted men. Can anyone say that legalized abortion has fulfilled its promise to reduce child abuse, or to reduce illegitimacy, or to reduce poverty?
Such misperceptions explain the seemingly contradictory polls showing that a majority of Americans believe that abortion should remain legal despite believing that it is murder. While the most committed pro–life Americans see legality and morality to be inextricably intertwined and thus view the polling data as contradictory, Middle America understands “legal” and “illegal” not in moral but in practical terms: Is criminalizing the procedure a realistic solution? It is commonly believed that prohibitions on abortion would not reduce abortion but would only push thousands of women into “the back alley” where many would be killed or injured, despite the evidence to the contrary. In 1957, for example, only 260 deaths could be traced to abortion. By 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade, only thirty–nine women died from illegal abortions, while twenty–seven died from legal ones. So much for the back alley.
Abortion advocates regularly do their best to spread such myths. For example, in 1995 when Congress first began to consider a bill prohibiting partial–birth abortion, abortion advocates bought a full–page advertisement in the New York Times showing a large coat hanger and the caption, “Will this be the only approved method of abortion?” Likewise, as Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a one–time pro–abortion leader, has written: “In NARAL we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always ‘five thousand to ten thousand deaths a year.’ I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose that others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the ‘morality’ of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics?”
While Middle Americans may view abortion as an evil, they view it as intractable. Likewise, they view fervent campaigns to prohibit abortion as unrealistic if not counterproductive, while they are drawn to realistic alternatives and regulations. They agree that there are too many abortions and would like to see them reduced. Abortion is not a galvanizing electoral issue for Americans because they don’t believe that much can be done about the issue legally or politically. But they are wrong.
Given the state of public opinion and the fact that 75 percent of Americans believe that abortion is at least the taking of human life, if not murder itself, effectively changing public attitudes will require a shift of emphasis and resources to educating Americans about abortion’s impact on women. The most direct and effective response to the myth of abortion as a “necessary evil” is to raise public consciousness concerning the damage abortion does to women. If Americans come to realize that abortion harms women as well as the unborn, it will not be seen as “necessary,” and the “necessary evil” may be converted into evil pure and simple. In this way, we may lay the foundation for a dramatic shift in public opinion in the years ahead.
Clarke D. Forsythe, an attorney, is President of Americans United for Life.