Abortion rights have been an inflamable issue among christians and feminists (and others) in first world countries. But one thing both sides can surely agree on – it would be better if there were fewer abortions.
Whether we believe that abortion is taking a human life, or we want to avoid what can be a medically dangerous or traumatic procedure, or both, it would be better if fewer women were seeking an abortion.
So what policy works best to achieve this?
It turns out that we could reduce abortion rates significantly with improved approaches to contraception, while punitive anti abortion laws have no significant impact in reducing the number of abortions, but instead cause more maternal deaths.
Some countries, and some states in the US, have put in place strong anti-abortion laws, restricting when an abortion can be performed, and sometimes why it can be requested. Doubtless many believe that this will reduce the number of abortions.
Pro-choice activists, on the other hand, sometimes say that the tougher the laws, the more abortions actually occur.
So which side is right?
It turns out that legal restrictions on abortion make virtually no difference on average to the per capita abortion rates (see note 1 for a comment on the data).
Restrictive laws don’t reduce abortion rates
Worldwide about 60-70 million abortions occur each year (Refs 1, 4, 6) – 60% of unwanted pregancies and 30% of all pregnancies end in termination (Ref 6). Abortion rates per population are statistically the same in countries with restrictive laws as they are in those with permissive laws (Refs 2, 3, 4).
Globally, abortion rates (per population) are falling in countries where abortion is broadly legal (generally developed counties with wider access to contraceptives), but rising slightly in countries where it is restricted. Overall, they are falling (Refs 1, 4, 8).
Abortion rates in the US have been at an all-time low in recent years. As with the world, the US states with restrictive abortion laws have similar abortion rates, on average, to those with permissive laws (Refs 2, 9b).
The reason why
The reasons are simple. Government which enact strict laws against abortions usually also don’t support the easy availability of contraception. So their jurisdictions tend to have much higher rates of unplanned pregnancies. So the greater difficulty in obtaining an abortion is balanced by the greater number of women seeking it.
Education and contraception reduce abortion rates
Making contraception easily available, accompanied by education in its use, is the one proven method of reducing abortions (Refs 11-13). Making contraception free of charge is especially effective because the most reliable methods of birth control are too expensive for poorer people (Ref 10). Free contraception can reduce teen pregnancy to about a quarter (Ref 10).
The main effect of restricting access to abortion is to make it less safe for those who nevertheless make the decision to terminate a pregnancy, because medical treatment is of lower quality (Ref 12). Almost half of all abortions worldwide are considered to be unsafe, most of them in developing countries, making unsafe abortions a leading cause of maternal deaths (Ref 6).
Developed vs developing countries
The vast majority of unintended pregnancies and abortions worldwide occur in developing countries (Refs 1, 4), principally because of the lesser availability of affordable contraception and education.
So how to achieve fewer abortions?
Clearly the best way to reduce abortions is to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies. Ready access to affordable or free birth control, accompanied by education, is the best way to achieve this.
Abortion and christians
Most christians believe abortion is taking a human life, and so are opposed to legalising abortion. But if they truly want to reduce the number of abortions, and so save lives (as they see it), opposition to abortion must be accompanied by improved sex education and easier access to birth control.
And if they are concerned about human lives worldwide, they will support birth control and education in developing countries.
A question of morality?
These facts place pro life christians in a dilemma.They oppose abortion but also probably believe sex outside of marriage is wrong. And they will likely feel that expanding contraception will promote sexual activity, which they think is immoral. So they will probably be unwilling for birth control to be freely available on moral grounds.
I think there are two clear responses to this view:
1. Support the greatest good.
Surely the taking of a human life is a greater moral evil than extra-marital sex? So surely a conservative christian should support the approach which saves lives as they see it, even if it opens up sexual activity they believe is immoral? It isn’t our task to try to control other people’s immoral behaviour, but it is our task to save and enhance life.
2. It isn’t that simple
It seems obvious that contraception must make it easier to have sex with fewer consequences and so increase sexual activity. But that may not be the case. Studies suggest that access to birth control may not have that effect, and may even make women more responsible (Ref 14). As an added benefit, access to birth control seems to be associated with an increase in gender equality and the time women spend in education (Ref 15).
A personal view
I don’t feel comfortable with abortions, for I think we can’t really know whether a foetus is a human being in God’s eyes, or not, and I’d prefer not to take the chance. I recognise that others see this differently.
But ready access to birth control and a greater focus on women’s health without punitive anti abortion laws seems to lead to the best outcomes – fewer abortions, better wellbeing for women and greater gender equality.
They are all outcomes that I as a christian support.
Case study: Netherlands
The following is often quoted, but some of the statistics are inaccurate, so I have corrected it.
“In the Netherlands, abortion is freely available on demand. Yet the Netherlands boasts the lowest abortion rate in the world [actually the 12th lowest according to Ref 5], and the complication and death rates for abortion are minuscule. How do they do it?
First of all, contraception is widely available and free – it’s covered by the national health insurance plan. Holland also carries out extensive public education on contraception, family planning, and sexuality.
Of course, some people say that teaching kids about sex and contraception will only encourage them to have lots of sex. But Dutch teenagers tend to have less frequent sex, starting at an older age, than American teenagers, and the Dutch teenage pregnancy rate is 6 times lower than in the US [actually it is a quarter as high].”
- Abortion rates go down when countries make it legal: report. NBC News, 2018.
- Abortion restrictions don’t lower rates, report says. CNN Health, 2018.
- Do restrictive abortion laws actually reduce abortion? A global map offers insights. NPR, 2022.
- Unintended Pregnancy and Abortion Worldwide. Guttmacher Institute, 2022.
- Abortion Rates by Country 2023. World Population Review, 2023.
- Abortion. World Health Organisation., 2021.
- What the data says about abortion in the U.S. Pew Research Centre, 2023.
- How the U.S. compares with the rest of the world on abortion rights. PBS News Hour, 2022.
- U.S. Abortion Statistics and State Abortion Statistics. Abort783.com, 2023.
- Free Birth Control Cuts Abortion Rate by 62 Percent. Live Science, 2022.
- 11 Ways to Safely Reduce Abortions Without Removing Access. GoodGoodGood, 2022.
- Reducing Unintended Pregnancy and Unsafely Performed Abortion Through Contraceptive Use. PRB, 2009.
- Contraceptive Use Is Key to Reducing Abortion Worldwide. Guttmacher Institute, 2003.
- No, Birth Control Doesn’t Make You Have Riskier Sex, Researchers Say. Time, 2017.
- Trends in sexual activity and demand for and use of modern contraceptive methods in 74 countries: a retrospective analysis of nationally representative surveys. E Slaymaker et al, The Lancet, 2020.
Note 1: Information on abortion rates is very approximate in some countries where abortion is illegal, for obvious reasons. Some of the data has to be estimated indirectly Thus different assessments produce slightly different results. But the broad conclusions I report on here seem reliable.