Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Lowered Abortion Rates: Good or Bad Sign?

By: Naomi Scheinerman

On Monday, February 3, 2014, the Guttmacher Institute published a study revealing that U.S. abortion rates are the lowest since the Supreme Court upheld the right to have an abortion in Roe v. Wade (1973). Although the study did not investigate reasons for the decline, it concludes that it was not due to the surge of abortion access restrictions passed from 2011 to 2013, nor was it due to a decreased number of providers. The authors also found that there was a proportional increase of early stage abortion inducements to later surgical procedures.

So, what can we conclude about the study? Why have abortion rates gone down? And, how should we feel about lowered abortion rates? Is this a good thing? What might this indicate about our society?

The Guttmacher Institute’s overarching goal is “to ensure the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health for all people worldwide.” Do lowered abortion rates mean that women are achieving a higher level of sexual and reproductive health in connection with the Institute’s goals? On the one hand, women should have access to means of contraception: the pill, condoms, IUD’s, etc. On the other hand, women should also have access to abortions. It seems that lowered abortion rates indicate a rise in access to contraception, increased freedom for women, and overall awareness of rights, access, and sexual health. So, abortion rates lowering (when it is not due to restrictions or scarcity of providers) is a good thing.

If we peer further, are lowered abortion rates beneficial for reasons other than their indications of other rights (access to contraception) in society? In other words, could they be ethically preferable? 

What differentiates an action between being ethically preferable and permissible? In order to determine ethical preference, it is important to compare the action being evaluated with its alternatives. The relative value of an action must be viewed in context with the array of other possibilities. Ethical permissibility indicates that the action, in isolation, is itself ethically allowed. Planting a tree to help with carbon sequestration is ethically permissible, and can often be ethically preferable (to chopping down a tree, for example), but not ethically preferable to taking public transportation to avoid carbon emissions in the first place.

The act of having an abortion itself is ethically permissible because a woman has the right to determine what happens to her body insofar as she does not harm another living human being. A fetus, until viability, does not have the moral status of a human being. The fetus deserves our respect, but ultimately its life should not be valued above either the physical or emotional welfare of the mother. Thus, for any reason: whether she and her partner’s condom broke or she was raped, a woman should have access to an abortion, and not be compelled to undertake the burden of bringing a life into the world.

Thus, in the case of abortion, the alternatives are often not preferable. If a woman feels she is incapable of having a child or cannot offer that child the best life possible, it is ethically preferable to terminate the pregnancy. However, in light of access to contraception, education, and increased awareness of women’s rights that can avoid an unwanted pregnancy, abortion is not ethically preferable.

As such, we return to the conclusion that lowered abortion rates are good insofar as they indicate increased access to contraception and awareness of women’s rights. Abortions are themselves ethically permissible; therefore, there should not be a huge cause for moral concern if there is an increase of them. However, in light of ethically preferable alternatives, we should celebrate decreased abortion rates, which often herald opting for those alternatives.

Naomi Scheinerman is a Research Assistant at The Hastings Center. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, with high honors and in distinction from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she received bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, political science, and Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies. She contributes a bi-weekly column on reproductive health. 


  1. Well written, but I disagree with your conclusions. Your argument, based on moral relativism, that a fetus does not have the "moral" status of a human being until viability, skirts the fact that such fetus is, in potential of being, a human person. It will not develop into anything else BUT a human being. Arguments based on a foundation of moral relativism shift as do desert sands depending on the zeitgeist of the times. Eventually we end up where Belgium is today.

  2. Thank you very much for your comment. I disagree that my argument is based on a moral relativist viewpoint. Moral relativism means that moral judgments are not absolute or universal, but rather based on traditions, convictions, or perspectives of different persons or groups of people. I argue that abortions are (a) universally permissible absolutely and (b) absolutely preferable if there are no better options yet not preferable if there are competing options, such as contraception and family planning. My argument is not a moral relativist argument because I argue that in every situation where contraception is available, that is the morally preferable route. However, in every situation where an unintended pregnancy has resulted despite the presence or lack thereof of contraception, abortions are morally permissible.

    Furthermore, claiming that the fetus does not have the moral status of a human until viability does not skirt the fact that a fetus is a potential human person. In fact, it is precisely because fetuses are “potential” and not human beings that they do not have the moral value of a human being. I believe that they, similar to embryos and eggs and sperm, deserve moral respect, but not to the same degree as a full-fledged human being.

    - Naomi