The Good News About Abortion—For Both Sides | Opinion

In the midst of the apocalyptic hysteria surrounding the Dobbs v. Jackson decision overruling Roe v. Wade, impassioned advocates largely ignore some significant points of consensus on the always-explosive issue of abortion. There is at least one long-term development that all sides could celebrate as positive and promising.

During the last 40 years, the number of annual abortions has declined, steadily and substantially. After a sharp uptick in the first decade after Roe legalized the procedure across the country, the intentional termination of pregnancy has become less common year after year, in every region of the United States. The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy operation that began in 1968 as a branch of Planned Parenthood, recorded more than 1.5 million abortions in 1991, but that number dropped to 629,898 by 2019—a reduction by more than half, even while the overall population increased by 75,000,000.

The drop in the abortion rate—the percentage of women of child-bearing age (15-44) who choose to end their pregnancies either medically or surgically—proved equally dramatic. In 1981, shortly after the Roe decision made legal abortion widely available, 29.3 per 1,000 women in that age group sought the procedure. By 2020, according to Guttmacher's statistics, the abortion rate went down by more than half, with only 14.4 abortions per 1,000 potential mothers.

This progress offers scant comfort to the most committed anti-abortion activists; for them, even a few hundred abortions are a few hundred too many, and the yearly loss of hundreds of thousands is utterly unacceptable. But that attitude only minimizes the great success of the pro-life movement in changing minds, and behaviors, over the years. The underlying goal has always been the protection of the unborn. It's no small matter that at least 10 million people who are part of our world today would never have been born had abortion numbers not begun their sharp plunge in the early 1980s.

While pro-lifers may undervalue the reduced abortion numbers their own advocacy helped to achieve, most pro-choicers don't value the trend at all. They tend to explain the reduced number of abortions solely in terms of the reduced availability of facilities providing "abortion care." Without question, new rules and restrictions in many states played a role, as did sharply increased use of birth control, but so did the rhetoric of leading Democratic moderates beginning in the early '90s.

abortion protest
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JULY 04: People march through the streets with signs during a demonstration against the Supreme Court on July 4, 2022 in New York City. The Supreme Court's June 24th decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health case overturned the landmark 50-year-old Roe v Wade case, removing a federal right to an abortion. John Lamparski/Getty Images

During his first presidential campaign in 1992, Bill Clinton famously (and repeatedly) expressed his desire to see an America where abortion was "safe, legal and rare"—an implicit acknowledgment that the decision to end a pregnancy had its regrettable aspects for both the individual and the society at large. This formulation, adopted by Hillary for her own presidential campaigns, spoke to the public's ambivalence on the subject far more effectively than current slogans do. Young demonstrators outside the Supreme Court proudly wear "I LOVE MY ABORTION" t-shirts (now for sale on the internet for $22.00).

In fact, public polling shows that most Americans do not love abortion, and accept it only in limited circumstances. In an early June Gallup poll (after the leak of the Dobbs decision) a clear majority described themselves as "Pro-Choice" but an even bigger majority (71 percent) said they wanted abortions banned in the third trimester of pregnancy. The biggest surprise involved the lopsided opposition to abortion in the middle three months of pregnancy: the public supports sweeping bans covering that period of gestation by a margin of 55 to 36 percent.

These sentiments put the nation at large almost perfectly in line with the Mississippi law that the Supreme Court validated in the Dobbs decision, which allows general abortion availability until 15 weeks of pregnancy—a regulation that resembles the standards in most European nations. Here in the U.S., even without official limitations that would allow abortion only in the first trimester, most Americans have been sensible and sensitive enough to limit themselves; Guttmacher's most recent numbers show that 93 percent of all abortions occur during the first trimester, making the panic over Dobbs look wildly exaggerated. The overwhelming majority of current abortions would remain just as legal and permissible as they were before the Court even heard the case. The real impact, barring radical new legislation in anti-abortion states, won't be a ban on all or even most abortions, but a strong encouragement for parents to make up their minds earlier in pregnancy, as more than 90 percent of Americans already do.

What alarms most people about the current abortion debate isn't the possibility of any specific legislation but a generalized distrust of our neighbors and fellow citizens with whom we disagree. The public quakes at the idea that the Supreme Court threw the abortion issue back to the control of legislatures and voters. We will only get crazy, new, extreme legislation if majorities push the politicos in that direction, but many Americans do worry about the fanaticism of the electorate. The Left views conservatives as benighted misogynists who long to subjugate women in the style of The Handmaid's Tale, while the Right sees progressives as bloodthirsty pagans filled with a perverted desire to sacrifice their own progeny on the altar of Moloch.

The truth is that most Americans are actually far more mixed and moderate in their approach, more reasonable, as shown not only by opinion polls but by their behavior. They've participated, after all, in the historic drop in abortion rates over the last four decades. This may not reassure ideological purists, but with state-by-state debates on specific schemes of regulation fast approaching, it should encourage more optimism about the possibility of compromise, and the ability to come together with a new sense of pragmatism and mutual respect.

Michael Medved hosts a daily radio talk show and is author, most recently, of God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era. Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.