How Are Women Doing?

Choice” has been an effective watchword for those who would allow women to decide whether to continue a pregnancy—especially since it implies that the alternative is forcing people to have children they do not want. In fact, many women who become pregnant have chosen to do so; they are happy they have become pregnant and hope a birth will result. Even so, those who feel this way are not typical, as one might think. A survey of pregnant women by the National Center for Health Statistics found that almost 40 percent were not elated about their condition, and most in this group did not want it to proceed. If these women are also to have a choice, abortion services must be widely available.

Between 1974 and 1997, the years for which we have figures, almost 35 million abortions were performed in the United States, or 390 for every 1,000 live births. If most “pro-life” proponents had their way, virtually every pregnant woman would be compelled to bear her child, with only an exemption if her own life might be at stake. They also think that if abortion were abolished, there would be less sex of the sort that now leads to clinic visits. On the other side, many “choice” advocates believe that women would want to have even more abortions, but have been thwarted by obstacles created by hostile states and localities. Some also feel the number would rise if counseling were offered to teenagers who haven’t pondered the consequences of early motherhood.

Abortions have recently been declining, from a height of 1.6 million in 1990 to just over 1.3 million in 1997, lowering the ratio to 342 for every 1,000 births. Even Planned Parenthood does not believe that clamoring pickets and restrictive regulations have had much to do with the drop. One reason is that contraceptive use is up, even if only modestly, encouraged by fears of AIDS and other venereal risks. Also, with an aging population, there are fewer teenagers and young women to have unwanted pregnancies; teenagers’ share of all abortions has dropped dramatically. But the chief cause has been an increasing choice by unmarried girls and women to complete their pregnancies and take the babies home, which has lifted nonmarital births to an all-time high. Among women who are now raising children on their own, fully 43.3 percent have never been married, by contrast with the 6.8 percent a generation ago. As for the fathers, fewer of them feel pressured or obliged, let alone inclined, to wed the women they made pregnant. (So today, brides with a baby on the way are less frequent.)

Rickie Solinger, in Beggars and Choosers, dismisses the whole idea of choice as “fairly ridiculous,” since not all women have a full range of reproductive options. Freedoms that in theory are available in fact have price tags attached. She cites the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal Medicaid funds from being used for abortions …

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