The missing abortion debate

babyThe European papers are all over this study from Oslo University on the trauma abortion can cause, which appears to be greater than the trauma caused by a miscarriage. The interesting thing here is that while European journalists jump all over this story, there is relatively little noise over in the United States. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Here is London’s The Daily Mail‘s take on the subject:

Women who have an abortion can suffer mental distress, anxiety, guilt and shame even five years afterwards and sometimes even longer, research has shown.

The study compared a group of 40 women who suffered a miscarriage with 80 women who chose to have an abortion, questioning them 10 days, six months, two years and five years after the event.

The team from Oslo University, found that women who had a miscarriage suffered more mental distress up to six months after losing their baby compared with those who had an abortion.

There is a certain Supreme Court decision known as Roe v. Wade that prevents any true debate in the United States on abortion. It’s perceived as a settled issue so journalists have little need to explore the deeply compelling story that is the actual act of an abortion rather than the horse race that is Supreme Court nominations.

It’s considered a right as basic as voting, which keeps it out of the political arena and thus largely the journalistic arena. There are exceptions of course, graphically seen here in the Los Angeles Times (for more commentary spurred on by that article, click here and here).

As the Economist wrote so eloquently this week (no link, sorry folks, I read this one while at the dentist and it’s blocked on their Web site), abortion in the United States remains a hot button issue precisely because there is no true debate on the issue. The issue of abortion is largely settled throughout most of the world (in favor with some restrictions), but in the U.S., the debate rages onward and has started to negatively impact our judicial system and take time away from other much more pressing issues that must be debated such as terrorism and a flu pandemic. And all because a few judges believed that the right to an abortion was akin to the right to vote. Clearly, the issue is not that simple.

Fox News’ Salynn Boyles seems to be the only American journalist to have jumped on this story, and she does so in great detail. The Australian covered the story as did the Hindustan Times. The BBC has an article on this, as does the Telegraph and The Independent. I know this story is only a day or so old, so it might take time for it to catch on in the U.S.

For reporters who coverage laps into this area of health and abortion issues, don’t let a legal decision stop you from covering this story. This Web site might be a good place to start as might the local church or abortion clinic. One way or another, there’s a story to be told and one way or another, the truth will get out. The question is whether American journalists have it in them to cover the story.

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  • Brad

    Planned Parenthood is putting out (again) cards that say “Choice on Earth” for Christmas. I guess they are right on one thing…this study seems to agree that “choice” has replaced “Peace” for those who have an abortion.


  • Avram

    The right to vote isn’t quite as basic or well-established as you may think, but that drifts off into another topic.

    Daniel, what are your criteria for deciding whether there’s debate on an issue? In my experience, lots of people shout at each other about abortion all the time. What do you think abortion arguments would look like in the US without Roe v Wade?

  • dpulliam


    You bring up a good point. I think right now the debate on abortion is merely an contest to see who can get the right Supreme Court justice on the court rather than a debate over the merits, or the lack there of, of abortion on demand and whether restrictions should be put in place. Journalists, commentators and politicians have not been able to delve into the issues because they are a moot point right now because of Roe v. Wade. In Europe and other parts of the world, as the Economist article pointed out, the democracies have been able to sort through the issue and come to a democratically settled decision that can be changed as the public learns more about the issue. In America, the debate is frozen back in the 1970s.

  • Michael

    in favor with some restrictions

    Which is exactly where the U.S. is. So, despite all that alleged debate elsewhere, we’ve all landed in the exact same place.

    There was plenty of debate over abortion prior to 1973. Post-1973, we’ve done nothing but debate abortion, its impact, and the moral questions. An entire political movement–the religious right–was born from the abortion debate.

    The rest of the world got to where it is because of the debate that took place in the U.S. In counties without the democratic, Constitutional, and judicial tradition of the U.S., they have watched our debate because we did the hard work for them.

  • Avram

    Daniel, while I’ll grant that many politicians tend to do a weird kabuki-dance when you ask them about abortion, I still see a lot of argument and commentary about it. Lots of editorials, lots of political activism.

    And there’s still legislative action. Congress has three times (in 1995, 1997, and 2003) passed bills banning intact dilation and extraction (aka “partial-birth”) abortion procedures, the first two being vetoed, the third becoming law. And there’s lots of arguing over parental notification laws. That doesn’t look to me like an issue frozen in the 1970s.

    (BTW, anyone know who started using “kabuki dance” to refer to the way politicians try to avoid saying anything substancial about abortion?)

  • DK

    There has and hasn’t been debate. I don;t think anyone really wants the kind of debate Mr. Pulliam is talking about, and that’s why we don’t have it.

    There has been plenty of argument, argument about the argument–have we really “had it,” have we had a “proper” one, something more elevated with expertise and calm, objective “rationality” with “all sides” represented? No we have not had that “debate,” not as a kind of official “national dialogue,” a big “family” or “town-hall” meeting.

    This kind of event that has never taken place on any issue, but the media since the Clinton years has persisted in talking about them as if they do or could exist. Maybe such a debate cpuld be had about things like pornography, but it is pure hogwash to believe that any kind of official debate would somehow put the abortion issue to rest by achieving a broad majority agreement or by merely getting most people to believe one exists.

    Abortion is not debated in such a major, decisive way because there is still a well-placed fear that most people understand on some level that the “debate” involves incommensurate beliefs, values, and ways of thinking. It cannot be settled by our proxies for violence: popular votes influenced “rational arguments.” It can only be settled by various degrees of political power plays and coercion, the milder forms of which include using one of the dominant political parties and trying to pack the SC with sympathetic justices.

    This situation is comparable to that of Tudor and Stuart England with the Puritan, Presbyterian, nonconformist factions. Failing to secure an adequate national consensus or merely a workable compromise/detente (which is in these cases quite impossible), eventually the less-institutionally empowered dissident group must conform or revolt. On abortion, the pro-choice camp has been winning by attrition. Time is on the establishment’s side, at least until it gets overwhelmed by its own failure to propagate itself ideologically and biologically. Still I can’t see their opposition responding to a decisive loss with any significant further opposition. However, right to life issues are poised to explode into being about much more than abortion, so thing swill likely change a lot–who is involved, how many people, their temperament, how far they’re willing to push.

  • Michael

    Dk raises important points. Whenever people say, “we need more debate” they invariably realize that their position–regardles of how noble–has lost. We are seeing the same conversation take place over same-sex marriage. The “we need more debate” and “let the people vote” crowd realize that they are likely on the losing end of an issue.

    But it goes both ways. There are people who believe we need to have “a national discussion” about the death penalty and the war. But as DK so eloquently pointed out, we aren’t really that interested in a conversation because it would expose the ugly morality of the issue.

    The coverage of Tookie Williams’ execution rarely deals with the ugly morality of the death penalty (and the Christians who support state-sponsored execution and those who oppose it). Our coverage of Iraq rarely deals with the ugly morality of killing 30,000 – 40,000 people in a war (and the Christians who support it and those who oppose it). Sometimes, we don’t want to face the ugliness of our moral positions.

  • dpulliam

    This is all well and good, but explain the absence of coverage in the United States of studies such as these? You cannot deny that the debate has been limited by the Supreme Court. State governments are unable to pass laws that would limit abortions, thus it is not a campaign issue. The debate on the death penalty has occurred in this country and apparently people approve. You don’t see death penalty questions being posed to potential court justices as potential deal-breakers. The matter is largely settled as an issue that is decided state-by-state, though I could see that change in the next few years. I’m just glad the Supreme Court has not thrown down a ruling either way on death penalty cases.

  • Michael

    With all due respect, states impose restrictions on abortion every year. In my state of Virginia, the legislature is inacable of doing little else beyond imposing restrictions on abortion. States aren’t passing as many laws because there is little else most states can do–beyond a complete ban–that they haven’t already accomplished. That’s why abortions are practically unavailable in at least 1/3 of the states in this country.

    Since Roe v. Wade, there have been as many as a dozen Supreme Court rulings limiting Roe and all of them are in response to states restricting access to abortion.

  • Tom Harmon

    Of course, a deeper issue might be whether there is such a thing as a debate about anythign of substance in American political discourse anymore. America has become a mostly non-literate society (We can read, sure, but our attention span is next to nothing) which seems to conduct exchanges of ideas by means of the sound-bite.

    As far as the abortion debate, I think it has become much more an exercise in power politics than persuasion. Daniel’s right; removing the debate about abortion from legislatures has stopped serious discussions. Almost no one on either side really thinks that the reasoning in Roe v. Wade has any merit, so the struggle becomes an issue of making sure my side has the power to rule on further supreme court cases. Power, not reason, becomes the object.

  • Avram

    Daniel, this is exactly the sort of fuzzy-edge, mushy pseudo-issue that I think there should be less coverage of. The U of Oslo study says abortion causes long-term psychological trauma, an Australian study says they don’t, in either case a person’s feelings are afected by the social environment surrounding her, so the very act of reporting these studies will change the subject being studied. And none of it really has much effect on how people feel about abortion.

  • Brad

    “in either case a person’s feelings are affected by the social environment surrounding her, so the very act of reporting these studies will change the subject being studied.”

    Maybe, Avram, by that reasoning more women will feel bad about abortion because they hear about these studies and think they should and, as a result, there will be fewer abortions! :)


  • Avram

    Maybe, Brad. I suspect that a lot of people think that would work. In my experience, most people are highly capable of doing things that they know (not just suspect) will make them feel bad later.

  • Brad

    Yes, I suppose that has been proven.


  • Jeffrey Weiss

    I have a methodology question.
    Shouldn’t the study have compared women who had abortions with women who — for reasons that would surely need to be explored — wanted to have an abortion but did not/could not? That is, can we compare the trauma from an abortion to the trauma caused by an “unwanted” birth? Seems to me that abortion/miscarriage isn’t the right binary to compare. Apples and avocados, in many ways…particularly regarding the religious/moral/ethical issues that fuel this particular blog. Miscarriage doesn’t have ‘em. Abortion and having a child do. And only the farthest fringe of abortion rights supporters claim that abortion is an emotionally or morally neutral act. Yeah, I know they’re out there. But numbers matter, I think…

    Jeffrey Weiss
    The Dallas Morning News

  • Brad

    That’s an interesting study. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone doing that, but it seems so obvious when you see it in print!

    You could technically divide the comparisons into had one/wanted to but changed their mind and had one/wanted to but couldn’t (for whatever reason). You could even divide that last one by the various reasons they weren’t able to (ie-not a clinic nearby, threatening significant other, parent said no, etc.).


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I find it illuminating that when most pro-life “conservative” Christians were also pro-death penalty for especially heinous murderers the media was full of snide comments about pro-lifers being in favor of protecting the lives of the yet-to-be-born while being in favor of killing the already born. Now, partially because of the papacy being so much against capital punishment, many conservatice Christians, especially Catholics, have turned against capital punishment. So how come we don’t see repeated and regular snide comments about “liberals” being against the execution of even guilty mass murderers while being for allowing the execution of innocent unborns. I just saw a TV commentator bring this up to a liberal anti-death sentence, pro abortion rights advocate- for the first and only time I’ve seen such– and talk about a kabuki dance in a double time shuffle.

  • Brad

    I agree John! I think a good principle to go by, with very few exceptions, is that hey, we shouldn’t kill people. Period.

    Seems pretty straightforward to me but people don’t seem to agree on this alot of the time.


  • Michael

    There is intelletual compatibility in saying the state shouldn’t execute its citizens and the state shouldn’t prevent women from making decisions about their own health and bodies. Autonomy, oppression, and the power of the state are the thread that ties those two positions together.

    I’m morally opposed to both abortion and the death penalty. OTOH, while I may want to pass laws preventing my government from executing its citizens, I am less thrilled about passing laws that take away a woman’s autonomy to make health decisions.

    I’m also not makiing a “culture of life” argument while being responsible for over 10 percent of all executions in the U.S. during my leadership. Or talking about the sanctity of human life while justifying torture and executions.

    So if people want to call me a hypocrite, I can live with that.

  • Brad

    Basically, Michael, that sounds like you’re arguing the government shouldn’t kill people (war, death penalty) but it’s ok if private individuals do. Interesting.

    So, you’re kind of making an argument similar to that made by business conservatives, with the difference being that you’d privatize the government’s usual power to kill and leave much else in state hands, while they’d privatize all the other roles usually associated with government, keeping the power to kill in state hands.

    Ahh, the joys of political philosophy.


  • Michael

    Fair point, Brad. The difference is I don’t see abortion as murder or killing. I see it is a moral wrong that is different from killing a human being because it is the taking of a potential life, not a human life. That moral wrong is balanced against the wrong of taking away the ability for people to make medical decisions for themselves.

    Ultimatley, we all rationalize our moral beliefs when they are placed into practice. I believe I have a moral obligation to help the poor, but in practice I don’t give money to homeless people on the street.

  • Brad


    I mentioned this on the Iraq war post (where our views tend to be more aligned) and I thought of it again when seeing you mentioned the disconnect between what you believe/think and what you do.

    I would recommend Ron Sider’s new book, “Scandal of an Evangelical Conscience.” It does a great job of really developing the case for a life built on Jesus’ *whole* message and I think it would hit just about everyone in their weak spots. It’s written from an evangelical perspective, but it’s such a strong critique of the present status of the evangelical movement that I’m guessing it would be best received by those who either at least leaned left or had some pretty thick skin.


  • Michael

    I’ll check it out

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Michael, abortion is not killing???? Stop and think how untrue that statement is. As for making a medical decision for herself–Pregnancy is a wholly different situation from any other medical question- a woman is making a life and death decision for an existing, living being who is other than herself and is also half the father’s. And without proper care after the umbilical chord is cut the child is as vulnerable for at least 5 years as it is in the womb. Some
    women claim this is a sexist society, but when do men have the right to be judge, jury, and executioner of another of our species and rub out all responsibility that our choices have created or fate has thrust upon us. With DNA tests now it is impossible for men to lie themselves out of their responsibilities. The irony is that as radical feminists label our society as sexist (and weak, spineless men fearful of responisiblity cravenly agree) our society has become one that has become near a female dictatorship–with women having rights they would never approve men to be allowed to have–order the death of his own child. In ancient Greece, after a woman gave birth she presented the child to her husband for examination. If he -for whatever reason or none- didn’t want the child he smashed its head against a rock or fed it to wild dogs. Some other pagan societies had similar systems of male “abortion” rights. If men are to have genuine equal reproductive rights with women we must go back to that system. Absurd?? There is a Yale University professor advocating this today. And since this site is about media, religion and related issues–on what other topic other than abortion does mainstream media-speak fastidiously use technical medical terminology instead of the common, regularly used English language–In otherwords::did you ever hear a pregnant woman pat her swollen belly and say her fetus is kicking. How about baby??? But the mass media follows the dictates of the rad-fems and regularly promotes the dehumanization of the child in the womb by labelling the child a “fetus.”

  • Brad


    Who’s the Yale professor? Do you mean Singer?


  • Mason Beecroft

    Singer is at Princeton.

  • Carl

    In fairness to Singer, he supports the dog’s right not to tear the baby to shreds if it doesn’t want to.

  • Brad

    True. He supports any and all rights of dogs.


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  • Molly

    I find it interesting that in the 29 comments posted so far, not one of them is from a woman.

    I also find it interesting that in the “debate” surrounding abortion, the subject of birth control and its access hardly ever enters the ring. It seems logical that if people use birth control, abortion could become quite rare.

    But then, that means that a woman has control over her sexuality.

  • Maureen

    I think it’s interesting how abortion makes women lose control over their sexuality and their children’s lives.

    No longer does any man have to fear having to pay child support. If he can force, trick, or persuade the woman to have an abortion, he’s scot-free.

    No longer does a man who’s raping his teenage daughter have to fear exposure of his incestuous acts. All he has to do is keep taking her to the clinic.

    No longer do parents whose little girls have serious sexual issues have to deal with them, for fear of the neighbors noticing, if nothing else. If the pills fail, take the girl to the clinic. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Oh, yeah, we women are so free.

    Free to take on the guilt and shame for stuff other people do to us. Free to suffer in silence, because if we complain, it’s all something we did to ourselves.

    Thank you, massa, for making us pro-chains.

  • Avram

    Molly (not the same person as Mollie, right?), you clearly don’t hang out in the same circles I do; the fact that wide access to birth control and sex education would cut down then abortion rate comes up most times that abortion is discussed. (Which isn’t actually that often.)

    And the linkage you mention is one of the reasons most of my friends think that the anti-abortion movement is more about controlling women’s sex lives than about concern for a “culture of life”.

  • Brad

    I also hear mention in this debate of wider access to contraceptives.

    Usually I hear it in the context of people arguing that condoms being more freely available (in schools, for instance) would lead to fewer abortions.

    Of course, that ignores the fact that most abortions aren’t coming from high schoolers.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    BRAD– I think you are probably right. I knew he was at one of those elite universities where the “best and the brightest” keep promoting ideas like the genetic purity and master race theories of the early 1900′s.

  • Brad

    Yes, and now the Singer types believe the master race consists of dogs.


  • holmegm

    >We are seeing the same conversation take place over
    >same-sex marriage. The “we need more debate” and
    >“let the people vote” crowd realize that they are
    >likely on the losing end of an issue.

    What? Saying “let the people vote” (presumably because you believe that, at least a lot of the time, you’d win) means that you’ve lost?

    Does that bother anybody, who likes to believe that they live in a democracy?

    >The “we need more debate” and “let the people
    >vote” crowd

    We used to refer to them as the “founding fathers” ;) An unruly lot they were, too …

  • holmegm

    >the fact that wide access to birth control and sex
    >education would cut down then abortion rate comes
    >up most times that abortion is discussed.

    OK, in the Western world, as “access” grew wider (70′s and 80′s), abortions increased.

  • Dan

    “It seems logical that if people use birth control, abortion could become quite rare.”

    I know it seems counter intuitive but the opposite is true — the widespread use of contraception has led to more, not less, abortion. This is demonstrable both as an empirical matter and as a matter of logic. Empirically the introduction of the Pill and widespread use of contraception in the 1960s and 1970s coincides with the social movement to legalize abortion and an increase in the rate of abortion. The empirical tie between contraception and abortion is not a coincidence. The use of contraception promotes the notion that there is a right to have sex without consequence; once this notion takes root, abortion becomes thinkable. Further, all contraception fails sometimes while at the same time promoting sex without commitment. As such, it creates the conditions for “unwanted” pregnancies which are at high risk of being “terminated” by abortion.

  • Avram

    Dan, condom use became dramatically more common in the 1980s (in 1982, 52% of women surveyed reported ever having had a male partner who used a condom; that number was 92% in 2002). Use of the pill has also increased. Yet, contrary to your claims, over just about that same period the ratio of abortions to live births in the US has been decreasing; having peaked in 1984 at 364 per 1000 live births, it was down to 246 by 2001.

    My own theory is that the anti-abortion laws of the 19th century were passed not out of concern for teh fetus, but because the rate of maternal death during such procedures was so high. It was the improvements in medical technology during the 20th century that made safe abortion possible, and legal abortion plausible.

  • Todd


    I am confused by your statistic. Do you mean 246 abortions to each 1000 live births, or 246 abortions per 1000 pregnancies? And, where did you see these numbers?

  • Dan

    Avram, the argument is not that there is a one to one correlation between contraception and abortion but rather is that the widespread acceptance of contraception correlates to widespread abortion. The statistics you quote do not contradict this. They do not evidence any major change in either contraception use or the abortion rate. People use condoms now more than other forms of contraception because condoms to some degree prevent the spread of disease. This is just substituting one form of contraception for another. There is nothing to suggest that the increase of condom use reflects an overall increase in the use of contraception. Our society maxed out on contaception use many years ago (for example, 99% of married Catholics use contraception). As to abortion, no one really knows why in the 1990s there was a relatively modest decline in abortions. The decline could be due to any number things — parental notification/consent laws, for example, may have played a role, or it may correlate to the uptick in pro-life sentiment. In any event the change hasn’t been dramatic, and it certainly can’t be said that a surge of use of contraction has led to a decline in abortions.

  • Avram

    Todd, the statistic was indeed per 1000 live births. If you google around, you’ll see that statistic used a lot. I can’t find the page I was using; that’ll have to wait till I’m back at work tomorrow and can search through my browser history on that computer.

    Dan, about one fifth of American pregnancies end in abortion, and it’s estimated that about half of American pregnancies are unwanted. That doesn’t sound to me like we’ve “maxed out on contraception use”.

  • Avram

    Todd, my sources for the abortion statistics:

    And that first one cites the CDC is its source.