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The Buzz

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Issue: "Signs and wonders," Jan. 26, 2008

Choosing children over choice

On the eve of Roe v. Wade's 35th birthday, the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) released new research on the number of children who never saw a birth day. An AGI survey of all known abortion "providers" in the United States brought some good news: The 2005 abortion rate-that is, the number of terminations per 1,000 women ages 15-44- was at its lowest ebb since 1974, the year after Roe, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. The 1.2 million abortions performed in 2005 were the lowest total since a high of 1.6 million in 1990, and a signal that the number of abortions overall is still declining.

But 1.2 million dead babies is also bad news. Tragic news.

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America has had abortion going back probably to 1629, and a roller-coaster experience since then: a sharp rise in abortions in the mid-19th century, a decline during the late 19th century, then a slow rise to the 1950s. A sharp rise in the 1960s followed that. Then came Roe and an abortion skyrocket that peaked in 1990.

AGI, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, has chronicled the decline since then. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also tallies abortion totals, but AGI's numbers are considered more accurate because they survey both hospitals and all known stand-alone abortion clinics. The CDC relies on state health department reports, and some jurisdictions, such as California, don't report at all, creating a data gap of more than a quarter-million abortions, before the counting begins.

According to AGI's latest report, released Jan. 17, the number of abortions in America declined 9 percent between 2000 and 2005. The last year in which the number of abortions was lower was 1976.

One big reason for the decline may be the growth of pro-life pregnancy resource centers led by committed women and volunteers such as Wanda Kohn, WORLD's 2007 Daniel of the Year (see "Frontline dispatches," Dec. 15, 2007). Care-Net, the nation's biggest umbrella organization for such groups, has made development of urban centers a priority, and so has Heartbeat, another large group.

A constant over the centuries is that legal change has an impact on abortion, but cultural change probably makes even more of a difference. Abortion rose in the mid-19th century despite its illegality. In 1860, with the advent of large cities, abundant prostitution, and a substantial 19th-century New Age movement (then called "spiritism"), the United States in proportion to its population probably had as many abortions as it now has, perhaps 160,000 in a population of 30 million.

(One big difference between now and then is that most mid-19th-century abortions occurred among prostitutes, who probably averaged four per year. Nevertheless, the overall number surprises many. Interested readers should see Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America, a book of mine based on a year of research at the Library of Congress.)

The late 19th-century growth of abstinence movements, "rescue homes," and compassionate help, supported by stronger laws and tighter enforcement, reduced the incidence of abortion by at least 50 percent. Since 1990, the number of abortions has fallen 25 percent, and that trend should continue as abortion alternatives grow, protective laws (such as those requiring parental consent and waiting periods) become more common, and ultrasounds allow more parents to see their babies in the womb.

-by Marvin Olasky, with reporting by Lynn Vincent

Juno nation?

Advocates of "comprehensive sex education" (read: not abstinence only) made much of December figures showing an increase in the U.S. teen birth rate. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that the birth rate for girls ages 15-19 rose 3 percent-from 40.5 live births per 1,000 females ages 15-19 in 2005 to 41.9 births per 1,000 in 2006. The increase follows a 14-year downward trend.

"Today's teens are the victims of a $1 billion social experiment: The national implementation of the abstinence until marriage policy," declared Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America. "Abstinence-only programs have not only failed to persuade kids not to have sex, but have led many not to use contraception."

But is the birth-rate increase the result of more unprotected teen sex-or fewer abortions? The answer: It's too early to tell. Although the birth rate tallies are in, CDC's abortion reporting suffers a lag of more than three years; the most recent figures available are from 2004. Between 2000 and 2004, the teen abortion rate fell from 17 per 1,000 girls to 15 per 1,000 girls. The CDC won't know until 2009 whether such measures as parental involvement laws increased the rate of decline in abortions, producing more "Junos" per thousand-teen girls who, like the lead teen in the current hit movie of the same name, decide to carry their babies to term-offsetting the birth-rate increase between 2005 and 2006.


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