Abortion should not be a hard, divisive issue - at least not politically.
This week, Gallup released its annual survey on how the U.S. public feels about it. For the past 10 years, the figures have hovered around the same lines, with about 50 percent saying they believe abortion is morally wrong, and around 40 percent said they believe it to be morally acceptable. Older people and Republicans score higher than others on being "pro-life" and seeing abortion as "morally wrong."
The survey also tracks how the American public feels about abortion policy. Between 50 and 60 percent say abortion should be legal in some circumstances. Another 20 to 30 percent believe it should always be legal, and 15 to 20 percent say it should always be banned.
Considering that discussions about abortion during the annual budget season in Congress this year threatened to shut down the federal government, some politicians might be tempted to scrutinize the Gallup survey for hints on the most politically expedient position to take on this issue.
That would be a bad idea.
Surveys on morals generally make for poor policy-making tools, not least because they can be read selectively. One Catholic blog celebrated the fact that 72 percent of those surveyed this year want abortion illegal, at least in some circumstances. But if you read the figures from the opposite side of the debate, they show that a higher percentage of those surveyed (77 percent) believe abortion should be legal, at least in some circumstances. Neither reading would be particularly helpful in crafting a policy response to abortion that allows for real, informed, and healthy choices.
Instead, politicians should be looking at studies on contraception use, current abortion practices, and pregnancy.
Because, if they do that, they'll find that 1 in 5 women in the United States feel they need to terminate a pregnancy at some point in their lives. Study after study has shown that women and girls have abortions when they need them, regardless of the legal or political context. Knowing this, politicians should realize that the only two things a government can affect through legislation and policies are 1) to what extent abortions are needed; and 2) to what extent abortions are safe. That makes the job of forming abortion policy a lot easier and less divisive. Few would contend that they wouldn't want to reduce the need for abortion. And few would want abortions to be unsafe.
Abortion is obviously scarcer in situations in which women get pregnant when they want to be, and when they are in a position to expand their families. This requires not only access to contraception and scientifically based sex education, but also paid family leave and support for child care.
Or look at it from another perspective. In countries where abortion is illegal, it is rarely scarce. In Argentina, where abortion is criminalized for most women, an estimated 40 percent of all pregnancies terminate in abortions. In Peru, with a similar legal framework, that proportion is 37 percent, and in Chile, where all abortion is illegal, the proportion is 35 percent. In Mexico and the United States, where the legality and access to abortion varies widely from state to state, the proportion is 20 percent. (All percentages calculated by using public figures on abortions and annual live births.)
So in fact, where abortion is illegal, it is equally if not more prevalent than in jurisdictions where it is legal. And where abortion is illegal, it is much more likely to be unsafe.
So, policy-wise, abortion is easy.
Of course, this does not mean that abortion doesn't generate strong feelings. Most everywhere, the issues related to abortion are framed as a "battle," either for women's lives, rights, and health, or for the life of the unborn child. Positions are presented and regarded as immovable and based on fundamental rights.
And it also does not mean that terminating a pregnancy doesn't present complex questions about the worth of human life, and about when a human being begins to exist.
And it definitely does not mean that the emotions that come with facing an unwanted or unhealthy pregnancy are uncomplicated or straightforward or always lead to the conclusion we expect. I have spoken with ardent supporters of abortion rights who have chosen to carry unplanned pregnancies to term because they felt a child grow inside them. And I have spoken with equally ardent supporters of abortion bans who have chosen to terminate pregnancies because they just could not face having a child.
But it does mean that surveys on morals are not useful in shaping effective policies on abortion. Instead, if policymakers want to make policy that has some impact on how frequently abortion is used, they should look to research on the social, economic, and health factors that affect a woman's ability to plan her pregnancy in the first place. That is what makes the difference.