During the 2020 election, a new argument made the rounds on social media, attacking pro-lifers for their political activism. The argument (which is more of an assertion) takes many forms, but it is essentially this:
Because abortion rates decline when a Democratic President holds office (or, more broadly, when the Democratic Party holds any type of political office) abortion rates decline, whereas when a Republican holds public office, abortion rates increase. Therefore, we are told, the truly “pro-life” thing to do is to vote for a Democrat, even if they stand in support of abortion.
The argument often confuses even staunch pro-life advocates, and at first glance is rhetorically powerful. However, it is flawed in several ways.
1. It misrepresents the the pro-life position.
Just like with arguments surrounding the pro-life movement and birth control, the argument is a straw man. It misrepresents the pro-life position. Pro-lifers argue that abortion unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being. They don’t oppose abortion because they dislike abortion; they oppose abortion because it is a grave moral evil against a defenseless human being. Therefore, pro-lifers see that justice demands we legally protect the unborn, just as civil societies enact laws to protect other powerless groups.
Pro-lifers contend that the unborn are full members of the human family before birth as well as afterwards. Differences in size, level of development, immediately exercisable mental capacities, being located in the womb, and being more dependent upon another human being for one’s basic needs are not good reasons to rule out the unborn from protection against being intentionally killed.
While a declining abortion rate can be celebrated, it is not the end goal of the pro-life movement. The end goal of the pro-life movement is for the culture to recognize both the humanity of the unborn and the inhumanity of abortion, and to take actions based on those principles. This can never be accomplished so long as the laws in the country permit the intentional killing of human beings in the womb. As Robert George points out, the law is a great teacher, and goes a long way in promoting moral behavior.1 Law is a reflection of what society values, and what society is willing to protect. A just society that values the unborn as full members of the human family will enact laws reflecting said principle. However, we will never get to a place where society acknowledges the unborn’s humanity, and the inhumanity of abortion, so long as public office is held by officials who refuse to recognize either.
A historical analogy may be helpful here. A similar argument was made in the mid-19th century during the debate over slavery in the United States. As Abraham Lincoln biographer Ronald C. White points out in his life history of the 16th president, defenders of slavery used to claim that states supporting the abolition of slavery had a higher rate of incidents of racial prejudice against Black Americans than states which still allowed for the owning of slaves. However, Lincoln and other abolitionists were undeterred; it was the humanity of those enslaved, and the inhumanity of slavery itself, that ultimately mattered.
It’s similar with the issue of abortion. Are the unborn members of the human family or not? If they are, then it really doesn’t make sense to allow abortionists to go on killing them with the legal protection to do so. A truly just society will work to pass laws to protect the unborn, just like a just society will pass laws to prohibit injustices against marginalized born groups, even if the unintended side effect for the time being is an increased abortion rate while the legal issue is being pursued. In fact, if the abortion rate goes up while legal protections for the unborn are being pursued, that only means pro-life advocates have far more work to do to save unborn children than we have realized.
Lastly, it’s worth noting how the pro-abortion movement approaches the issue. When it comes to elections, the abortion lobby almost religiously endorses pro-choice candidates. Groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL have routinely endorsed pro-choice Democratic candidates such as Joe Biden. It’s worth asking why. If a Republican Presidency means an increased abortion rate, then why bother supporting a Democrat?
The simple answer is: The abortion lobby knows better. They may have a warped moral compass, but by and large they aren’t stupid. They know that the election of a Republican president poses a threat to abortion “rights” in the long run, regardless of the overall abortion rate. They aren’t deterred by the idea of a lower abortion rate under a Democratic presidency; they know the issue of climbing and falling abortion rates are a red herring.
This means that if the abortion lobby is going to spend so much time, resources, and energy on a political party in order to retain the legal protections necessary to kill human beings in the womb without hindrance, then it follows pro-lifers must pay equal or greater attention to their immediate political situation. Focusing on the abortion rate is a distraction. Greater issues are in play that must be focused on in order to stop the killing of the unborn; most important being the legal context protecting the killing of the unborn in the first place.
2. It’s statistically problematic
The claim that abortion rates decline during the administration of a Democratic President needs to be examined more carefully than it usually is. Let’s suppose it’s true, numbers of abortions performed during a Democratic administration do decline. So what? Why should anyone believe that it is the policies of Democrats that reduce the number of abortions performed? In order to establish that it is the presidency of a Democrat that reduces the abortion rate, a connection has to be established between his policies and the rate of abortion itself. Maybe it is true, liberal politics can alleviate the burdens that cause women to seek abortions.
However, there might be other explanations that have nothing to do with liberal policies enacted by a Democratic President, and are purely coincidence to his holding office.
For example, pro-life efforts may increase during the administration of a pro-abortion president. It’s not hard to imagine why. Many pro-life advocates see the greater threat to the unborn in the form of policies endorsed by said candidate, such as bills requiring insurance companies to provide for abortion coverage, revoking laws prohibiting the use of tax dollars to fund abortions, greater efforts by abortion lobby groups to create a presence in public schools with sex education, and greater efforts to promote the RU-486 abortion pill. It would only be natural to see pro-lifers step up their game upon seeing all of these trends.
On the other hand, when a pro-life Republican holds public office, a spirit of complacency may set in, and pro-life efforts may dwindle. Many pro-life advocates may feel as if major victory is on the horizon, and will spend less time actively engaging on behalf of the unborn as they would in a different political climate. It’s not hard to imagine. Shortly after President Trump was elected in 2016, there was a sense of being on the edge of victory. Many pro-life advocates felt that we were “finally” about to see the end of abortion.
This turned into a proverbial counting one’s eggs before they hatched. The pro-abortion Left pulled out all stops and became ever more vicious and vile in the past four years, and pro-life efforts hit greater obstacles. This means a greater threat to unborn children, and greater requirements on behalf of the pro-life movement, even when an anti-abortion politician holds office.
There may be other reasons why abortion rates decline under the Democratic party leadership; reasons that have nothing to do with the party’s politics. As Michael New points out,2 the abortion rate does reflect the policies of a pro-life political leader, but it can take time for the effects to be seen. A declining abortion rate under a Democratic president may actually have nothing to do with the policies he has put in place, but instead the policies of his predecessor, a Republican. Jumping to conclusions and saying that it is the policies of Democrats that truly reduce abortions is intellectually lazy. Instead, critics of the pro-life view must take the time to argue for why these policies affect abortion in the first place.
One other thought on the statistical issue, the claim about abortion rates falling only when a pro-choice Democrat holds office isn’t as readily apparent as some want to believe. As Snopes analyst Alex Kasprak points out, it’s not entirely true that abortion rates only decline under the presidency of a Democrat; as abortion rates have been steadily declining since the 1980s under both parties. Writes Kasprak,
“It would be easy to demonstrate that abortion rates have not risen under Democratic administrations in the last several decades, but it would be false to argue that declines in abortion rates are an exclusive feature of Democratic presidencies. The claim that abortion rates fall under Democrats, while true, ignores the fact that rates have also continued to decline through Republican administrations as well.
The claim, then, that abortion rates (at least since their mid-1980s peak) have risen when Republicans have held the White House is therefore equally false. At most, one can argue that the rate of decline appeared to slow during the presidency of George W. Bush before increasing under President Barack Obama’s administration, but such an observation would be based on a comparison between only two administrations and would do nothing to demonstrate causation.”3
As Kasprak notes, most anti-abortion legislation happens at the state level (think the “Heartbeat Laws” that were passed in Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia last year), which means that focusing on how a presidency will affect abortion rates is actually a mistaken approach. The president (usually) can’t control what laws are passed at the state and local levels, which means the abortion rate may fluctuate regardless of which party holds the White House.
Even then, the argument is statistically flawed for other reasons. For one, it fails to take into account the percentage of unplanned pregnancies being terminated, and those carried to term. As Michael New also points out, while usage of contraceptives has remained steady over the years, the number of unplanned pregnancies declined from 54 percent in 1981 to 40% in 2008.4Additionally, any discussion of abortion rates over time in the United States needs to take into account several factors: The sudden increase in abortions just following Roe v. Wade, the change in states such as California not being required to report abortion data to the CDC(which caused a lower number to be reported during the Clinton administration), and other factors have all played a role in the overall abortion rate declining since the 1980s, independent of which party holds the White House in a given year.5 However, Presidents from only one of the two parties have at least said they were going to do something on behalf of unborn children, and many have made good on that promise.
This also brings us back to the first point. The goal of the pro-life movement is not to merely lower the abortion rate, but to instead ensure the humanity of the unborn is recognized by the broader culture. Law is an important part of the equation (probably the most important part), which means pro-lifers must ensure that those who influence law in all three branches of government understand and are willing to fight for greater protections on behalf of the unborn. As of right now, it’s hard to see how a Democratic presidency can accomplish this, as opposed to putting further obstacles in the path of pro-life efforts to protect the unborn.