The 2016 US presidential race seems particularly consequential. Many of my friends have expressed dismay at the choices available for president this year. I've read and thought about this a great deal, and feel I should express what I've learned, as I've come to wholeheartedly support Mrs. Clinton's candidacy. And where better to start than with one of the trickiest issues of all: abortion.
Let me be clear: I believe the act of aborting a pregnancy is wrong - it ends a life that is just beginning. Sometimes the act needs to be taken to prevent a greater harm, but that is a hard choice for those who make it. From my religious faith I also believe sex outside of marriage is wrong. And I believe one of our great purposes here on Earth is to learn to make right choices in our lives - we need to teach and communicate the difference between right and wrong and encourage ourselves and others to choose the right. So in the case of abortion what are the steps that we, as citizens of our nation, can take that will help bring about a decline in its prevalence? Here is a short summary of why I believe electing Hillary Clinton as president will move things in the right direction. You may disagree, but I think there's considerable evidence on my side of this question. First a summary, then detailed discussion below:
1. Unplanned pregnancies are nothing new
My great-great grandfather Smith was born in 1839 in Greenwich, just south of London, England, to a single mother - Lucy Robinson. He was raised by his grandparents. My mother's father was similarly born to a single mother in a small village in Germany in 1895, and raised by an uncle and aunt. Teenagers and young adults throughout history have let passion overcome what they know to be right, and without some foundational change in human nature that will not change. Changing culture can move the needle up or down a little from time to time but the underlying cause is the nature we have been endowed with and will always be there. Contraception is also nothing new, although modern options are more convenient and widely available. But pregnancy happens even in those using contraceptives. Young people should know that pregnancy (along with sexually transmitted diseases) are a serious possible consequence of sexual activity. They should at least be making informed choices rather than facing consequences in ignorance. But believing that there is anything society can do to completely eliminate unwed pregnancy? Unlikely.
2. Laws cannot prevent abortions
Laws are one way to communicate what society as a whole believes to be wrong and requires punishment - but they do not wholly prevent the thing they are against. Laws against murder do not prevent murders, they punish murderers. Laws against drug abuse do not stop drug abuse. And laws against abortion do not stop abortions. Before the "Roe vs Wade" US supreme court decision in 1973, in those states where abortion was illegal abortions were still common - at least hundreds of thousands per year, possibly over a million. At least hundreds of women died every year from illegal abortions.
Moreover, the US Supreme Court decision in 1973 legalizing the act is settled law and unlikely to ever be overturned. For years Republican politicians have railed against it, but during the Reagan and Bush (I and II) years, 20 years in control of the presidency and with the appointment of seven supreme court justices by Republicans (only 2 were appointed by Bill Clinton during those years) the decision has stood. And given the hazard to women from self-induced abortions or unregulated clinics, it seems far better to keep it legal. Various states have introduced restrictions of one sort or another but there is no clear evidence that those laws actually significantly reduce rates (more on that below).
The "pro-choice" label has been adopted by advocates for abortion, but the literal meaning of the label is one of the central ideals of American democracy and of at least some religious faith: individual liberty, the freedom to make choices and to accept the consequences of those choices for yourself. The opposite suggests intrusive government intervention in our lives. Clinton herself long ago argued against the two extremes of non-choice on this matter:
From my own personal experience, I have been in countries that have taken very different views about this profoundly challenging question [of abortion].
I went to China in 1995 and spoke out against the Chinese government’s one child policy, which led to forced abortions and forced sterilization because I believed that we needed to bear witness against what was an intrusive, abusive, dehumanizing effort to dictate how women and men would proceed with respect to the children they wished to have.
And then shortly after that, I was in Romania and there I met women who had been subjected to the Communist regime of the 1970s and ‘80s where they were essentially forced to bear as many children as possible for the good of the state. And where abortion was criminalized and women were literally forced to have physical exams and followed by the secret police and so many children were abandoned and left to the orphanages that, unfortunately, led to an AIDS epidemic.
[2008 Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College , Apr 13, 2008 - from ontheissues.org]
Laws as draconian as this could certainly have an effect on the abortion rate, but they are antithetical to basic American principles of liberty and freedom from oppression. They are not the right path for this nation.
3. The abortion rate has declined since the 1980s - especially under Democratic presidents
Abortion statistics are compiled in the US officially by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), although since the mid 1990s some states (including California) have declined to provide those numbers to the CDC. A separate private accounting is done by the Guttmacher Institute, which attempts to gather numbers for the entire country. While the numbers do not agree in detail, they do agree across the board on trends: both in terms of absolute numbers and relative to the number of women and the number of births, abortion rates peaked in the early 1980s and have declined ever since.
For the CDC numbers, the red line shows data for all states where available in 2003, the blue for the 47 states reporting continuously in the 2003 report, and the black the "continuously reporting areas" in the 2012 report:
With the CDC data I have highlighted the periods of Republican (red) and Democratic (blue) presidents. It simply cannot be disputed that rates have declined much more significantly under Democrats than under Republicans. Some clue as to why comes from analysis of where the declines have been greatest: an AP survey shows states with no new abortion restrictions (like New York) had the same or greater declines in abortion rates as states with significant new restrictions; and the only states with increases in abortion rates were Louisiana (up 12 percent from 2010 to 2014) and Michigan (up 18.5 percent from 2010 to 2014) which had imposed restrictions but also had neighboring states with more significant restrictions that likely led to some out-of-state patients, confusing the statistics somewhat. The overall decline in the period from 2008 to 2011 was studied by the Guttmacher institute which found it was largely due to a decline in unintended pregnancies thanks to greatly increased use of long-acting reversible contraceptives.(such as IUD's), though several other factors seem to be also involved (an improved economy brings a greater desire for children, for instance).
Whether economic, health care, or general welfare policies are behind it, the numbers are clear that Democratic administrations have been better at reducing abortion rates than Republican administrations, over the past 35 years. If reducing the abortion rate is something you really care about, the data should in itself give you an important bias to favor voting for Democrats.
4. Hillary Clinton's example and influence
But what about Hillary Clinton's policies and personal stance on the matter? Her Methodist faith seems to have strongly influenced her to the view that abortion is wrong, not something she would ever engage in herself. She has consistently for decades emphasized that abortions be "safe, legal, and rare". While the issue has not been raised extensively in the 2016 campaign, in the 2008 campaign she did address it, for example:
I think abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare. And I have spent many years now, as a private citizen, as first lady, and now as senator, trying to make it rare, trying to create the conditions where women had other choices.
I have supported adoption, foster care. I helped to create the campaign against teenage pregnancy, which fulfilled our original goal 10 years ago of reducing teenage pregnancies by about a third. And I am committed to do even more.
[2008 Democratic Compassion Forum at Messiah College , Apr 13, 2008 - from ontheissues.org]
Her perspective encourages trying to change behaviors and attitudes regarding sexual activity among young people - and apparently has had some success:
Fewer teens are having sex, getting pregnant, and having abortions, but there are clearly too many young people who have not gotten the message. Every teenager must be reached. More has to be done to reach out to young men, and enlist them in the campaign to make abortions rare, and to make it possible for them to define their lives in terms other than what they imagine sexual prowess and fatherhood being.
[Remarks at NARAL, Washington, D.C. , Jan 22, 1999 - from ontheissues.org]
More significantly, I think the attitude of respect for those who are different, for all people whatever their background, sets an important example. When we abandon self-centered-ness, the selfishness of the ultra-individualist, for an attitude of cultivating relationships with those around us, when our leaders use the word 'love' in the sense Jesus did - to love our neighbors, that can shift cultural attitudes among the broader public in profound ways. The acts that lead to unwanted pregnancy, and the choice to have an abortion, often stem in part from a selfishness and pride, to avoid shame and embarrassment, or perhaps just inconvenience. When we treat all individuals with respect and look outside ourselves more, then treating the unborn - and the power to create life - with a deeper respect must follow naturally. At least that is my hope.
And I have become deeply impressed with the respect Hillary Clinton has shown for those in all circumstances. Her recent policy speech on helping the disabled was remarkable to me as an example of how much she respects those who are different. There were similar themes during the Democratic convention several months ago. Not only is her heart in the right place here, she expresses and communicates it well, and looks ready to act to make a real difference in the lives of many.
There are undoubtedly many who will disagree with my conclusions. It is certainly true there are many different perspectives on the question of abortion. Democrats are definitely not always in the right on this - there are some who seem to feel there is no wrongness at all in aborting a pregnancy. But that does not apply to the woman we have before us now. I was already prepared to support Mrs. Clinton for president for other reasons. But on this issue also, I have concluded she will be by far the best choice. If this issue is really important to you I hope you will also consider the matter carefully in light of all the evidence, and vote accordingly.
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