Abortion Is Not a "Necessary Evil"
Forsythe, Clarke D., The Human Life Review
[Clarke D. Forsythe, an attorney, is president of Americans United for Life. This article first appeared in Christianity Today (5/24/99) and is reprinted with the author's permission.]
Twenty-six years after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision, the public debate on abortion seems to have reached a stalemate. The issue continues to be debated in Congress and state legislatures across the country, but, year to year, there seems to be little change in public opinion.
This does not mean, however, that the abortion issue is going to recede in intensity any time soon. There are many reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is simply that "the majority of Americans morally disapprove of the majority of abortions currently performed," as University of Virginia sociologist James Hunter concludes in his path-breaking 1994 book, Before the Shooting Begins: Searching for Democracy in America's Culture Wars. Hunter's analysis is based on the 1991 Gallup poll "Abortion and Moral Beliefs," the most thorough survey of American attitudes toward abortion yet conducted.
The Gallup study found that 77 percent of Americans believe that abortion is at least the "taking of human life" (28 percent), if not "murder" itself (49 percent). Other polls confirm these findings. And yet, while many Americans-perhaps 60 percent in the middle-see legalized abortion as an evil, they see it as "necessary."
The Chicago Tribune aptly summarized the situation in a September 1996 editorial: "Most Americans are uncomfortable with all-or-nothing policies on abortion. They generally shy away from proposals to ban it in virtually all circumstances, but neither are they inclined to make it available on demand no matter what the circumstances. They regard it, at best, as a necessary evil."
If Middle America-as Hunter calls the 60 percent-sees abortion as an evil, why is it thought to be necessary? Although the 1991 Gallup poll did not probe this question specifically, it made clear that it is not because Middle America sees abortion as necessary to secure equal opportunities for women. For example, less than 30 percent; believe abortion is acceptable in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would require a teenager to drop out of school (and the number drops below 20 percent if the abortion is beyond three months). Likewise, less than 20 percent support abortion in the first three months of pregnancy if the pregnancy would interrupt a woman's career (and that support drops to 10 percent if the abortion is after the third month).
Four "necessary myths"
Instead, many Americans, therefore, may see abortion as "necessary" to avert "the back alley." In this sense, the notion of legal abortion as a "necessary evil" is based on a series of myths widely disseminated since the 1960s. These myths captured the public mind and have yet to be rebutted.
Myth #1: One to two million illegal abortions occurred annually before legalization. In fact, the annual total in the few years before abortion on demand was no more than tens of thousands and most likely fewer. For example, in California, the most populous state where it was alleged that 100,000 illegal abortions occurred annually in the 1960s, only 5,000 abortions were performed in 1968, the first full year of legalization.
Myth #2: Thousands of women died annually from abortions before legalization. As a leader in the legalization movement, Dr. Bernard Nathanson later wrote: "How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In N.A.R.A.L. we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always '5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.' I confess that I knew the figures were totally false, and I suppose that others did too if they stopped to think of it. But in the 'morality' of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? …