Would strengthening the economy really reduce abortions?

For ten of the past twelve years, I have been studying and/or teaching at Christian universities and seminaries. I have found that, while most of my peers believe abortion is wrong, they are often not much concerned with efforts to outlaw abortion. Many arguments are given to support this indifference, but one of the most common goes something like this:

People often have abortions because they do not have the financial resources to raise a child. In other words, abortion is a symptom of poverty. Thus, instead of trying to outlaw abortion, those who seek to decrease the number of abortions in America should focus instead on fighting poverty. For example, suppose a candidate who opposes legalized abortion but has a weak economic policy is running against a candidate who supports legalized abortion but has a strong economic policy. In such a scenario, those who are truly pro-life should support the candidate with the better economic policy. This is the way to reduce abortion.

At first glance, this argument seems quite persuasive. But let’s take a closer look.

Consider the chart below, which displays the US unemployment rate side-by-side with the US abortion rate. (This data was obtained from the Guttmacher Institute and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.) As indicated by the unemployment rate, the economy fell sharply during the time period shown. Based on the argument above, one would expect this recession to have triggered an increase in abortions. But this did not happen. Instead, the abortion rate continued to slowly decline, as it has done since 1990. As the stock market plunged and millions of Americans lost their jobs, desperate parents evidently did not flock to abortion clinics.

Unemployment and Abortion

Now of course, this data does not prove that poverty has no affect on abortion rates. One might, for example, show that a country with extreme poverty has a higher abortion rate than a more developed country. But this data does show that even dramatic changes in the US economy do not necessarily impact the number of abortions in America. If there is some relationship between the strength of the economy and the annual abortion rate, it is certainly not obvious.

This data therefore cautions us against the sort of naïve assumptions which undergird the argument presented above. The simple fact of the matter is that there will always be strong motivations for men and women to choose abortion, regardless of the ups and downs of the US economy.

Moreover, while we should take every effort to reduce the number of abortions in America, a truly just society cannot tolerate the murder of even one child.

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