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Religious Tolerance logo

Reducing the U.S. abortion rate by
reducing unwanted pregnancies: Part 1

Pro-life & pro-choice history. Difficulty
of joint effort. Opposition to contraception usage.

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Past activity by the pro-life and pro-choice movements:

Prior to the 1973 Roe v Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, individual states had conflicting laws governing abortion access: some were highly restrictive; others more permissive. The court's decision made abortions freely available throughout the U.S. during the first trimester -- the first three months of pregnancy. It did allow individual states to place increasing restrictions during the second trimester and additional restrictions during the third trimester. However, it required that women have access to an abortion at any stage of pregnancy if they needed it for "health" reasons. Over time, the health exception became very broadly interpreted.

This court decision galvanized the pro-life movement to try to find a way to restrict abortions. Some pro-lifers want to eliminate abortion access entirely, even if was needed to save the life of the woman. Many others would allow abortions, but only to save the woman's life. Still others would allow them in a few other situations: e.g. rape, incest, or to prevent very serious health consequences like a woman's permanent disability.

Their effort has not been notably successful. Laws have been passed:

  • To make abortions more difficult to obtain.

  • To criminalize the transportation of a minor across state lines to have an abortion a criminal act.

  • To require women under the age of 18 to obtain parental agreement for an abortion.

  • To impose requirements on women's clinics that provide abortion that are so onerous that many such clinics have had to shut down.

The abortion rate has been in a slow decline in recent years. However, this reduction appears to be caused primarily by other factors -- most notably fear of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), increased use of contraception, and adopting less risky alternatives to sexual intercourse. Meanwhile, the pro-choice movement has continued to try to make abortions available to all women.

More recently, debate over D&X pregnancy termination (a.k.a. Partial Birth Abortion, PBA) surfaced. This is a procedure used late in pregnancy. In  rare instances, it is needed to avoid very serious health consequences to women. A federal law and many state laws were passed to severely restrict the practice. The pro-choice movement supported the continued availability of this procedure. However, the D&X procedure is seen as uncomfortably close to infanticide by much of the public. This placed the pro-choice movement in a bad light.

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A new trend, promoted mainly by the pro-choice movement:

During his 1996 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton said that he wanted a culture in which abortion was "safe, legal, and rare." This resonated with many American adults who feel uncomfortable with the concept of abortion, yet also feel that women should be able to terminate their pregnancies safely in at least some situations.

In 2005-JAN, on the 32nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, Senator Hillary Clinton stunned the pro-choice community with a suggestion that an abortion was a "sad, even tragic choice" for a woman. She further recommended that it was time for pro-choicers to seek "common ground" with the pro-life movement. 1 Many felt that this suggestion was a bit of a stretch. Both the pro-life and pro-choice movements had specialized in distorting each other's activities, goals, and viewpoints for decades. Many felt that working with the "enemy" would be difficult to impossible to achieve.

Over the next two years, many Democratic legislators and pro-choice leaders have started to agree with Hillary Clinton's call for cooperation between the two warring factions. Jodi Enda wrote:

"After decades of battling strictly for abortion rights ... pro choice leaders have settled on a new tack: prevention. The best way to reduce the need for abortion, they remind us, is to prevent unintended pregnancies." 1

Almost half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended and unexpected. About 42% of those pregnancies are terminated by an abortion.

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A potential problem: opposition to the use of contraceptives:

The reason why women seek an abortion is obvious: they do so because they are pregnant and don't want to be. Preventing unwanted pregnancies would reduce the number of abortions. However, this requires either the use of contraception, or the practice of abstinence. The latter has not proven to be particularly effective. Abstinence-only programs in schools do appear to delay teens' first sexual experience slightly. However, when they do become sexually active -- at about 16 years of age on average -- many lack the the knowledge of how prevent STI transmission and pregnancy. In addition, abstinence has a failure rate in excess of 90% in that almost all young people become sexually active before marriage.

That leaves contraception. To be most effective, a contraceptive-based abortion reduction program would require that:

bulletContraceptives be free or easily affordable by everyone.

bullet Contraceptives be easily obtained by anyone who is or plans to be sexually active.

bullet All adolescents be trained in their proper use, starting well before they become sexually active.

Some countries in Europe have implemented this type of program. The public in France, Germany, and the Netherlands expect teens to become sexually active and to employ safer sex techniques to protect themselves against pregnancy and STI. If the Dutch attitudes on human sexuality were adopted by the U.S., the rate of abortions by American teens might be reduced from 27.5 per 1,000 adolescents per year to something like the Dutch figure of 4.5 -- a reduction of 85%. This would cause a reduction on the order of 200,000 abortions per year! To the pro-life movement, this would mean that about a fifth of a million murders would be avoided.

Contraception has wide acceptance in the U.S.: The National Survey of Family Growth, 2002, reported that among sexually active women aged 15 to 44, the following percentages of women have used modern contraceptive methods, like the birth control pill, condoms, IUD, etc: 2

Religion % who have used modern contraception
Protestant 97.3
Roman Catholic 96.2
Other religion 95.8
No religious affiliation  98.1
Average 97.0

However, not everyone is in favor of the use of contraceptives, particularly when it involves adolescents.

bullet Among Roman Catholics: The Roman Catholic hierarchy is unalterably opposed to the use of such contraceptive methods. They teach their concept of natural law in which every act of sexual intercourse must be open to conception and the creation of new human life. However, the Catholic laity appears to have rejected the church's teachings. Among sexually active Roman Catholic women:
bullet 97% of those over 18 years of age have used a contraception method banned by the church. The average for all American women is also 97%.

bullet85% have had their partners use condoms.

bullet78% have used the birth control pill.

bullet 88% of married women who attend church once a week or more have used a method banned by the church. For those who attend church less often, the number is also 88%.

bullet Fewer than 3% use church-approved fertility awareness-based methods -- called "natural family planning" -- as their primary form of family planning. Of those women who try this method, about half abandon it within the first year. 2
bullet Among conservative Protestants: Many Christian fundamentalists and other evangelicals:
bulletAre keen to preserve the "purity" of their teenage children; i.e. to keep their children sexually inactive until marriage.

bullet Consider pre-marital sex to be a very serious sin.

bullet Oppose the use of the Gardasil® vaccine to protect their children against genital human papillomavirus (HPV). This the primary cause of cervical cancer which is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths among women. Many believe that if young people feel safe from HPV and cervical cancer, they will be more prone to engage in pre-marital sex.

bullet Oppose comprehensive sex education in the schools that educate teens in methods of preventing STI transmission and pregnancy, as well as promoting abstinence. Many religious conservatives sincerely believe that if such information is provided, that students will be more likely to become sexually active. Many studies show the opposite, but are generally rejected by religious conservatives.

Their rationale appears to be that if the various risks of sexual activity remain high, then youths will be afraid of engaging in sex. Thus, fewer youths will decide to become sexually active.

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This topic is continued in the next essay

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References used:

  1. Joni Enda, "Prevention drives today's pro-choice agenda," Conscience magazine, Winter 2006/2007, Pages 11 & 12.
  2. "The facts tell the story: Catholics and Contraception," Catholics for a Free Choice, at:
  3. Joseph D'Agustino, "Democrats plans for dividing and demonizing pro-lifers. Plan to promote more contraception and thereby make pro-lifers look like hypocritical extremists,", 2007-JAN-26, at:

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Copyright © 2007 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2007-JAN-22
Latest update: 2013-OCT-17
Author: B.A. Robinson

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