The Softer Side of the Pro-Life Movement: Abortion Worse Than Teen Pregnancy

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 8, 2008   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

The Softer Side of the Pro-Life Movement: Abortion Worse Than Teen Pregnancy

by David Frum
September 8, 2008 Note: David Frum is a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

Whoever imagined that we would see a Republican convention rapturously applaud an unwed teen mother?

Yet that is just what happened on Wednesday night in St. Paul. At the conclusion of Sarah Palin’s triumphant speech, the Alaskan Governor welcomed her family onto the stage: her husband, her five children and the fiance of Bristol, her visibly pregnant 17-year-old daughter.

That moment confirmed a dramatic evolution in American politics: the transformation of the pro-life movement from an unambiguously conservative force into something more complex.

A quarter century ago, a sympathetic journalist named Burton Yale Pines set out to understand the origins of the then-young social-conservative movement.

Abortion certainly ranked as issue number one, reported Pines in his 1982 book, Back to Basics. But abortion did not stand alone. Social conservatives cared almost as much about relaxed standards of sexual morality, about government interference in home schools and about the then-new issue of homosexual rights. Social conservatives were united, Pines observed, by their "determination to [defend] the traditional nuclear family [from] more than a decade of attacks from anti-family forces on the left."

Many or most of the issues that excited those first social conservatives have since faded away. The pro-life movement, however, has gone from strength to strength, breaking away from its culturally conservative origins and finding new allies in unlikely places.

The pro-life movement has made common cause with the movement for the rights of the disabled. Impaired pregnancies are highly likely to be aborted, including more than 90% of Down syndrome pregnancies (according to a 2002 survey of American patients).

Pro-lifers have discovered shared values with critics of biotechnological research and commercial reproductive technology, such as the former Ralph Nader lawyer, Wesley Smith.

The disproportionate incidence of abortion among non-whites has caused pro-life leaders like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee to take a new interest in issues of race and discrimination. (The one-third of the U.S. population that is not white has two-thirds of the abortions.)

The whole world witnessed this week that the pro-life movement has accepted gender equality and leadership roles for women.

Most fascinating of all, the pro-life movement has come to terms with the sexual revolution. So long as unwed parenthood is considered disgraceful, many unwed mothers will choose abortion to escape disgrace. And so, step by step, the pro-life movement has evolved to an accepting–even welcoming–attitude toward pregnancy outside marriage.

Religious groups have opened crisis pregnancy centers–at least 2,200 across the United States as of 2006–serving perhaps half a million women per year. The spirit of these centers is well expressed in a 2006 article in Christianity Today by Amy Laura Hall, director of the theology program at Duke Divinity School.

Hall urged evangelical communities to support "alternative high schools where pregnant girls may continue their education. We could work for maternity leave and flexible schedules at all levels of education and enterprise, especially at institutions overtly committed to Christian witness advocating for systematic acts of mercy through a matrix of services to offer single mothers a safety net of care."

She concluded: "After hearing me give a talk on abortion, eugenics and teenage pregnancy, my oldest daughter, with whom I had not yet initiated a talk about birds and bees, looked up at me and said frankly, ‘Mom, if God gives me a baby before I am married, I won’t worry. I know that you and Dad would take care of it so that I could stay in school.’"

And indeed, this approach seems to have worked. As the stigma attached to unwed motherhood has diminished, the United States has seen both a huge increase in the proportion of babies born out of wedlock–now reaching almost 37%–and a striking decline in the incidence of abortions.

In 1981, 29.3 abortions were carried out for every 1,000 women of childbearing age in the United States. By 2005, that rate had tumbled to 19.1 per 1,000 women.

The experience of the Palin family symbolizes the effect of the pro-life movement on American culture: Abortion has been made more rare; unwed motherhood has been normalized. However you feel about that outcome, it is not well-described as either left-wing or right-wing.


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