When discussing how “rare” or “frequent” something is, what matters more: percentages, or absolute numbers?
In the abortion debate, this problem comes up in at least two contexts: rape, and late-term abortions. Abortion advocates maintain that pregnancy from rape is a common occurrence. They also maintain that late-term abortions are rare, as they are only a “small percentage” of the 1.06 million abortions that take place in the United States each year. Pro-life advocates are prone to the opposite biases; we emphasize that rape accounts for a very small percentage of abortions, while giving lots of attention to the barbarity of late-term abortion.
Let’s look at the numbers. They’re oddly similar.
A 1996 study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology estimated that 32,101 American women are impregnated by rape each year. In absolute terms, that’s horrifying. (But not all those women will abort; in fact it’s 50-50, according to this pro-choice source. That makes sense, given that about half of American women are pro-life and rapists don’t discriminate.) But in percentage terms, “only” five percent of rapes cause pregnancy.
According to the Guttmacher Institute (which officially supports abortion and thus has an incentive to de-emphasize late-term abortions), 1.2% of abortions in the United States are performed after 21 weeks, and 3.6% are performed between 16 and 20 weeks. That makes it seem like late-term abortion is rare, but multiply those percentages by 1.06 million—the total U.S. abortions in 2011—and you’ll find that there are over 50,000 late-term abortions in the U.S. every year (12,270 after 21 weeks and 38,160 between 16 and 20 weeks).
For me, the absolute numbers matter more. When it comes to pregnancy from rape, one rape is too many. Likewise, one late-term abortion is too many. This focus on the individual person is a good fit with my pro-life values. But I’ll entertain the case for (consistently!) emphasizing percentages, if you wish to make such a case in the comments.