Last week, The Lancet journal published the results of a global, large-scale study about abortion trends. The results are both staggering and illuminating—and they call for a response from the pro-life movement.
In easily the most devastating aspect of the study, Lancet reports that 25 percent of all pregnancies now end in abortion. Overall, the data shows an increase in the number of abortions: The international rate jumped from 50 million annually during the four-year period from 1990 to 1994 to 56 million from 2010 to 2014.
If you pay attention to abortion discussion in United States, you’re probably surprised. Here, we’ve seen abortion numbers decrease during the past several years. And this new Lancet data doesn’t contradict that. In fact, the decline in abortions is a trend across the developed world. According to reporting from Vox, North America in the early 1990s saw 45 abortions for every 1,000 women of reproductive age. Recently, that number fell to 27 abortions.
Almost all of the coverage of the Lancet findings suggests that this decline in abortions correlates to increased access to contraceptives—for obvious reasons. Though, it’s worth noting that millennials are also less sexually active than previous generations, which represents an obvious factor, too.
This downward trend entirely stops in the developing world. As Vox reports, in developing parts of African, Asian and Latin American countries, abortion rates either remained consistent or increased since the 1990s. The overall number of abortions increased, too. This seems, in part at least, driven by population growth.
This new data is vast and complex. One of the first things you notice is that global abortion rates vary widely. For example, countries in the Caribbean currently own the highest abortion rates (65 per 1,000 women of reproductive age). The lowest rates are here in North America and Europe (17 and 18, respectively). It’s also true—as we’ve explored before—that legal conditions of abortions vary widely.
In addition, though, to offering quantitative insights to abortion around the world, the Lancet report reveals some data that overturns some common assumptions of those of us within the pro-life movement.
Abortion Laws Don’t Appear to Reduce Abortion.
Countries where abortion is illegal don’t have lower abortion rates—but they don’t have higher ones, either. This information was easily the most broadcasted last week. But the legal status of abortion appears to be a relatively minor factor. Lancet researchers looked at the legal status of abortion and found that it didn’t correlate with lower abortion rates. Women were still terminating pregnancies despite the legal restrictions.
Married Women Are Most Likely to Get an Abortion.
The Lancet data finds that married women generally have higher abortion rates. This is pretty surprising, since most often we think of women seeking abortions as single, scared and coerced by some withdrawn male. And it is true that in North America, most abortions are for single women. But that’s not the case in most of the world. Globally that stereotype doesn’t hold up.
In Europe, in fact, the study shows that the abortion rate for married women is more than twice as high as the abortion rate for unmarried women.
Money Plays a Major Factor in an Abortion Rates.
No less than 88 percent: The percentage of abortions that occur in the developing world. Their calculations show that while the number of abortions per person has stayed stagnant in many poorer areas, in richer areas it fell from 25 to 14 per 1,000 women of reproductive age. The Lancet study shows that rates have improved in many rich countries but warn this masks no change in poorer areas over the past 15 years.
Looking at the divide between the developed and the developing countries, it’s clear that one of the main contributors to abortions is lack of money. It’s not tough to think of the reasons why—this probably results in reduced access to contraceptives, poor or non-existent education, lack of resources to provide for a child and plenty of other corollaries.
How This Could Re-Shape the Fight Against Abortion
The Lancet study not only calls our attention to how urgent the abortion issue is—after all, one-in-four pregnancies!—but it also calls into questions some of our basic assumptions.
Obviously, Roe v. Wade was a legal case. And because one of the most decisive victories for the so-called “pro-choice” side was legal, almost all of the energy in the fight against abortion in the U.S. seems to center on the legal front. So as this study reveals that the legal status of abortion plays a statistically non existent role in affecting abortion rates, we will need to rethink those energies. Abortion certainly isn’t less than a legal issue, but it is far more.
Many of these non-legal efforts are underway already. Some of the most promising moves are expanded use of things like the Baby Box, and efforts to make adoptions more affordable.
I don’t think this means pro-lifers should quit the legal war for life. If we’re saying—which we are—that life in the womb is life made in the image of God, then it makes perfect sense that battles for the dignity and honor of that life should extend wherever possible.
One of the clearest points to come out of this study is that abortion, at many levels, is a poverty issue. And, again, while I don’t think we should stop the channels through which we’re currently fighting abortion, we need to put serious thought in how these realities about abortion should re-shape the pro life movement.
Honestly, large parts of the Lancet study are just dejecting. But we can’t forget that what this new data also reveals is that progress is possible.
Aaron Cline Hanbury is a contributing editor for RELEVANT. You can follow him on Twitter at @achanbury