Not a numbers game

Arguing that abortion is common doesn’t help the pro-choice position.

By Matt Barnum

Earlier this year, in one of my psych classes, my professor had the class answer a series of questions. One of the tasks was to estimate the number of abortions for every 100,000 births. To do this, we had to choose a high and a low number, within which we were 90 percent sure the real number lay. Remarkably, as it turned out, not a single person in the class of about 40 was able to provide a correct range.

The correct answer, in 2005, the latest year for which numbers are available, is that for every four births, there was slightly more than one abortion, totaling 1.21 million abortions for the year.

No doubt that almost all those hands that lay resting when the professor asked who estimated correctly would have shot up had he then asked who was pro-choice. That’s because most supporters of legal abortion are unwilling or unable to grapple with the hard reality of abortion in America.

Except maybe Jeffrey Toobin. In a remarkable piece for The New Yorker, Toobin, one of the nation’s top legal analysts, turns these statistics on their head, using them not as an argument against legal abortion, but for it. “Abortion is almost as old as childbirth. There has always been a need for some women to end their pregnancies,” opens Toobin. He continues blithely: “[T]hirty-five percent of all women of reproductive age in America today will have had an abortion by the time they are forty-five. It might be assumed that such a common procedure would be included in a nation’s plan to protect the health of its citizens. In fact, the story of abortion during the past decade has been its separation from other medical services available to women.”

Why is abortion so controversial if it’s also so common, Toobin asks. Going to the doctor for strep throat? Awesome—have an abortion while you’re there, and maybe get your flu shot.

This kind of talk is distasteful for most of us, pro-choicers included, because we know, as much as Toobin wishes otherwise, that abortion is different from other “common procedures.” President Obama realizes as much, as Toobin disapprovingly notes: “[L]ike many modern pro-choice Democrats, [Obama] has worked so hard to be respectful of his opponents on this issue that he sometimes seems to cede them the moral high ground. In his book ‘The Audacity of Hope,’ he describes the ‘undeniably difficult issue of abortion’ and ponders ‘the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion.’”

The new battle on abortion, then, is not between pro-lifers and pro-choicers; it’s between two camps in the pro-choice movement.

In some sense, Toobin is right: To support legal abortion but to work to reduce the number of abortions comes across as incoherent. Why should the number of abortions be reduced, Toobin might ask. Because it’s immoral? And why is it immoral?

From this point, it’s pretty hard for the pro-choice side to win the argument—because the answer to why it’s immoral is that maybe a fetus is a human life. And if maybe a fetus is a human life, then maybe we shouldn’t allow the destruction of a human life. As Toobin says, cede too much ground, and suddenly you’ve lost.

But in a more meaningful sense, he’s wrong. A recent Pew poll found that 65 percent of Americans support reducing the number of abortions, meaning that most people agree that terminating a pregnancy is not just another day at the doctor. After all, what other medical procedure would people support decreasing just for the sake of decreasing it?

That’s why ultimately Toobin’s side in the feud between pro-choicers is sure to lose: He can’t pretend that the banality of abortion implies its morality.

Matt Barnum is a fourth-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a member of the Maroon Editorial Board.