Over the past several months, the morale of the pro-choice side of the abortion stalemate has visibly collapsed. Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, and 1.5 million abortions continue to be performed every year. But defenders of the right to an abortion – once so supremely self-confident – now express unprecedented doubts and misgivings about their cause.

In October, 1996, Norma McCorvey – the “Jane Roe” in Roe v. Wade – dramatically defected from the pro-abortion camp, overcome with guilt, she said, at the sight of empty swings in a playground.

That same month glitter feminist Naomi Wolf published an anguished piece in the New Republic, warning abortion-rights supporters that they stood in danger of becoming “callous, selfish, and casually destructive men and women who share a cheapened view of human life.” Only a few weeks before, the Atlantic Monthly had published an appeal to liberals by Professor George McKenna of New York’s City College, urging them to recognize abortion as perhaps necessary, but certainly evil.

Even the Supreme Court speaks a little more diffidently on the subject of abortion. In a 1989 case, Webster v. Director of Reproductive Health Services, and its 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court permitted states to limit abortion rights, especially those of minors, without fear of falling foul of the 14th Amendment. Indeed, the Supreme Court seems to be continuing to uphold Roe v. Wade less because it believes that decision to have been correct than because it fears damaging its own authority by conceding that the decision was mistaken.

What happened? How did the pro-choice side lose out?

Claims proven false

The answer couldn’t be simpler. Proponents of abortion rights overcame Americans’ qualms about the procedure with a long series of claims about the benefits of unrestricted abortion on demand. Without exception, those claims have proven false.

Perhaps the most powerful of the pro-choice arguments was the claim that any infringement of the right to an abortion would return America to the dark ages when thousands of women died because of unsafe, back-alley abortions – between 5,000 and 10,000 a year was the figure usually given by abortion proponents in the 1970s. In fact, it wasn’t Roe v. Wade that made abortion safe: it was the availability of antibiotics beginning in the 1940s. And at no time could the number of abortion fatalities ever have come anywhere close to the 5,000 to 10,000 number.

The National Center for Health Statistics confirms that 1,313 women died obtaining illegal abortions in 1940, most of them victims of infection. But as penicillin and sulfa drugs spread – and as medical techniques improved – abortion-related deaths fell off sharply: only 159 in 1966, 41 in 1972.

Had pre-Roe abortions been so very dangerous, we would have expected a sharp drop-off in the death rate among women after Roe. But Centers for Disease Control statistics show no decline in the years after Roe in the death rate of women aged 15 to 34, the group of women who account for 94 per cent of all abortions.

Nor were the abortionists of the 1950s and 1960s the untrained butchers of legend: Dr. Mary Calderone, a former medical director for Planned Parenthood, estimated (in the American Journal of Public Health) in 1960 that 90 per cent of all illegal abortions were performed by qualified physicians.

Another persuasive argument put forth by abortion advocates was that by guaranteeing that every child was a wanted child, legal abortion would protect children from being born into poverty, reduce illegitimacy rates, and help to eliminate the horrors of child abuse. That argument too has been spectacularly falsified.

Child poverty? Abortion advocates like Senator Jacob Javits of New York darkly suggested in the 1970s that America could get rid of poverty by getting rid of the poor. He described New York’s decision to legalize abortion as “a significant step forward in dealing with the human problems of our state.”

The Commission on Population Growth established by President Richard Nixon in 1970 agreed. In the second of its three reports, issued in March 1972, it called for Medicaid-funded abortions as necessary weapons in the war on poverty. But in fact child poverty rates have multiplied since then; the hope that America could abort poverty out of existence has not been borne out.

The commission also predicted that the legalization of abortion would reduce illegitimacy rates. That proved staggeringly incorrect. Only 10.7 per cent of all births were to unmarried mothers in 1970. By 1975, after Roe, the illegitimacy rate had jumped to 14.3 per cent. It now stands at 26 per cent. Two-thirds of all black children are born out of wedlock.

Predictions of the alleviation of child abuse have proven no more accurate. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect reported 669,000 incidents of abuse in 1976 (the first year for which it has data) and three million incidents of abuse in 1994.

There was probably something disingenuous even at the time in abortion advocates’ concern for children. Far more sincere – and passionate – was their argument that untrammelled abortion rights were indispensable to women’s equality. In the early 1970s, abortion advocacy groups, such as the National Organization for Women, the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (later the National Abortion Rights Action League), and the President’s Advisory Council on the Status of Women, insisted that any limit on abortion violated a woman’s right to control her body.

Feminist advocacy takes hold

Feminist author Shana Alexander expressed this point of view forcefully in an article in the October 2, 1972 Newsweek. She praised the demise of “Victorian sexual hypocrisy,” and divided women into three categories: the most enlightened, who were now “legally able to terminate unwanted pregnancies”; the semi-enlightened, whose divorces had helped them to “gain a new understanding of their property rights and the fact that, through the very act of marriage, they surrendered certain of their fundamental human rights, including even their name”; and, most backward of all, “the so-called happily married women” who failed to recognize their oppression.

Feminist advocacy of abortion was powerfully seconded by the terror incited by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling book, The Population Bomb, published in 1968. All ocean life would die of DDT poisoning by 1979, Ehrlich warned. Nor would Americans be spared. Thousands would die in smog disasters in New York and Los Angeles. Life expectancy in the United States would plunge to just 42 years by 1980, as pollution-induced cancer epidemics ravaged the population.

Ehrlich co-founded the group Zero Population Growth to save the world from such destruction. To the public, the forecasts of this scientist, reported and amplified in the media, seemed appallingly plausible. By 1971, the number of children desired by young married women had dropped to an average of 2.4, just shy of Zero Population Growth’s recommended 2.1. The United States birthrate tumbled from its postwar highs, and population experts credited the new environmental ideology as a factor in the decline. Press reports told of earnest young college girls having themselves surgically sterilized rather than bring any more children into an overcrowded world.

In a controversial two-part episode of the popular CBS sitcom “Maude” broadcast in 1972, a character chose to have an abortion to end an unplanned pregnancy: a New York Times reporter intimated that the show was prompted by a $5,000 prize offered by the Population Institute for the best prime time script concerning population control.

Paul Ehrlich looks pretty silly now. Life expectancies in both the United States and the Third World are lengthening. Western European countries fret over birthrates below replacement levels, and birthrates in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have been falling for 25 years. Economic growth has brought creature comforts and better health to an increasing fraction of the human population everywhere on the planet.

Another ‘myth’ rejected

Perhaps the last of the abortion myths to tumble is the familiar refrain that abortion ought to be a matter between a woman and her doctor. More and more, abortion is a matter between a woman and a specialized abortion clinic that offers little support or counselling. Two-thirds of the obstetricians and gynecologists in practice in the United States refuse to perform abortions, according to a survey released by the Kaiser Family Foundation in September 1995. The reasons given by these doctors only rarely included pressure from anti-abortion activists. Most doctors cited religious scruples, or simply said they did not like doing them.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology found the same levels of reluctance in a similar study done in 1985. The college found that even of the one-third of obstetricians and gynecologists who perform abortions, most do four or fewer per month. A majority of the 1.5 million abortions in the United States each year are done by just two per cent of all obstetricians and gynecologists.

Pro-choice groups now pin their hopes on RU-486 and other abortion-inducing drugs as a way of bypassing the need for physicians. But this type of abortion, in which the dead fetus may be passed in the toilet or shower, may be even more emotionally traumatic for women than current procedures. It certainly does nothing to reassure the public that abortion is humane.

Instead, abortion, in the public mind, has become linked to sexual irresponsibility and the degradation of sound values and human life. Women may be free from “forced” childbearing, but increasing numbers of them are bearing and rearing their children alone. And, contrary to pro-choice assertions, figures from the Centers for Disease Control show that many of those having abortions are using the procedure as a form of birth control: of those who opted for abortion in 1995, nearly half had had at least one previous abortion. Nearly one in five had had two or more previous abortions.

Further, that the nation should aim, as the Commission on Population Growth recommended in 1972, “toward the development of a basic ethical principle that only wanted children are brought into the world” is disturbing philosophically. Should a human being’s right to existence depend solely on how much it is desired by another? Does support for abortion on demand lead us toward eliminating all of the unwanted, those whose suffering, or potential suffering, we decide is too much for them (or us) to bear?

Extreme position less popular

A September 1995 Gallup poll shows the United States divided between those who take the more liberal view that abortion should be legal in “any” or “most” circumstances (45 per cent) and those who take the more conservative view that it should be illegal or legal only in extreme circumstances, i.e., rape, incest, or fetal deformity (51 per cent). But single-issue surveys are meaningless in gauging whether support for abortion is a voting issue. Increasingly, Americans say they are personally opposed to abortion, yet favor the availability of legal abortion for someone else. That kind of soft support is vulnerable to erosion in the face of pitched battles over gruesome medical procedures.

If abortion advocates remain rigid ideologues, unwilling to consider even the slightest restriction on a woman’s right to choose, there could be tough years ahead.

(Candace C. Crandall, former communications director at The Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C., now writes for the Science & Environmental Policy Project in Fairfax, Virginia. This article is reprinted with permission of The Women’s Quarterly).