No, the Mexico City Policy does not drive up international abortion rates.

[Today’s post is by guest blogger Candace Stewart.]

One of the first actions the new Biden Administration is expected to take (which has yet to happen as of this writing) is the repeal of the Mexico City Policy. The policy originated under Ronald Reagan and prevents US foreign aid funds for family planning from going to organizations that perform abortions or advocate for their legalization in developing nations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

This policy has fluctuated since its foundation, as it has been reversed under all Democratic presidents since Clinton and then re-enacted under all Republicans since Reagan.

Pro-choice critics of the policy, labeling it the “global gag rule,” argue that restricting funds from family planning organizations in Africa harms women by making access to contraception and clinical abortions difficult or impossible. In fact, these critics point to a few studies that seem to confirm this (one in 2011, one in 2018, and the latest in 2019). The 2019 study, published in Lancet Global Health by Brooks et al., is more comprehensive than the previous studies and analyzes data from three administrations (Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama). They analyze data on abortion and modern contraceptive use in 26 African countries and label some “high exposure” (hereafter HE) if they are most dependent on US foreign aid, and therefore more affected by the Mexico City policy, and others “low exposure” (hereafter LE) if they are least affected. The authors explain:

Our paper finds a substantial increase in abortions across sub-Saharan Africa among women affected by the US Mexico City Policy. This increase is mirrored by a corresponding decline in the use of modern contraception and increase in pregnancies under the policy. This pattern of more frequent abortions and lower contraceptive use was also reversed after the policy was rescinded.

Based on this summary, one might conclude that Brooks et al found that when the Mexico City policy is in place, abortions rise and contraception use decreases, and once the policy is reversed, abortions decrease and contraception use increases, especially in HE countries. And yet this relationship is not what the study found. As the authors explain in the supplemental material (Figure S4):

(Click to enlarge)

There is no clear pattern here of contraception use decreasing and/or abortion rates increasing during the policy. In fact, the pattern of increasing contraceptive use in both HE and LE countries is consistent regardless of whether or not the Mexico City policy is in place. HE countries had lower contraceptive use from the beginning, but use increased more sharply around 2005, during the Bush administration, and continued to increase under Obama at a steadier pace.

The abortion rate chart is much more scattered, possibly reflecting unreliable reporting (more on that below), but taken at face value, the trends seem mostly independent of the Mexico City Policy. Abortion rates in HE countries started off low and trended up during Clinton’s administration and into the Bush administration until around 2007, when there was a slight decrease. The only consistent pattern is that abortion rates in both LE and HE countries rose sharply under the Obama administration, which seems to directly contradict the authors’ implications about the policy’s effects.

This lack of correlation is obscured in the main paper, because the authors focus on differences between abortion rates among HE and LE countries. Here is how they put it:

Our regression estimates show that relative to women in low-exposure countries, women living in high-exposure countries used less modern contraception, had more pregnancies, and had more abortions when the policy was in place compared with when the policy was rescinded…when US support for international family planning organisations was conditioned on the policy, coverage of modern contraception fell and the proportion of women reporting pregnancy and abortions increased, in relative terms, among women in countries more reliant on US funding.

Now it is true that abortion rates of HE countries were more similar to the LE countries under Obama then they were under Bush, but Brooks et al don’t mention that this is because rates for both groups sharply increased after plateauing at lower levels during the Bush years. There also was a larger gap in contraception use between LE and HE countries under Bush, but this gap narrowed years before Obama reversed the Mexico City policy.

The Supplemental Material contains another important chart (Figure S3). The authors color code the abortion rate per 10,000 woman-years in each African country studied for the study’s time period (1995-2014). Some countries included a lot fewer data. For example, from 1995-2014, Brooks et al have only 7 years for Swaziland and 6 years for Comoros, Gambia, and Liberia. Nearly all the countries have data missing for at least some years.

Brooks et al use data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), a nationally representative household survey. These surveys track reported abortions and live births, with spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) and induced abortions categorized together. Here’s how the authors differentiated between the two:

A termination was classified as induced if it occurred following contraceptive failure, if the terminated pregnancy was unwanted… or if the woman was under age 26 years and was not married or in a union. Terminations were not classified as induced if they occurred in the third trimester, if the woman indicated that contraception had been discontinued to allow for pregnancy, or if the woman was married or in a union with no children.

As the basis for their algorithm, the authors cite this study conducted in Turkey in 1996 using DHS data from the country. Brooks et al note their own limitations with the DHS:

Abortions are often under-reported in survey data, and the DHS is no exception.

Even if abortions did go up during the Mexico City Policy and down without it (not the case), given all the uncertainties and missing data, it would be hard to draw any sweeping conclusions from these surveys. Similarly, pro-lifers should be cautious about assuming Obama’s reversal of the policy caused the apparent abortion rate jump under his administration; the jump could reflect more accurate reporting, or the abortion rates may not be reliable to begin with.

But even if all the data presented is accurate and representative, it still doesn’t support the authors’ grim picture of the Mexico City Policy. The average abortion rate of all the 26 countries studied was apparently lower when the policy was in effect under Bush than when it was rescinded under Obama.

Poll: Pro-choicers support a lot more abortion restrictions than you’d expect.

When polls regarding abortion ask Americans about Roe v. Wade, most people say they want the Supreme Court decision upheld. But when the same polls ask people when they think abortion should be legal, most believe there should be more restrictions than Roe v. Wade actually allows. I’ve summarized these contradictory results before. Today I was reading a 2019 NPR/PBS Marist poll which captured the same phenomenon.

The poll asked: In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutional right for women to legally obtain an abortion. Over time, other laws have expanded or restricted this ruling. Do you think the U.S. Supreme Court today should decide to:

  • Overturn Roe v. Wade
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but add more restrictions
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but reduce some of the restrictions
  • Expand Roe v. Wade establishing the right to abortion under any circumstance
  • Keep Roe v. Wade the way it is
  • Unsure
The poll found that 39% of respondents thought Roe v. Wade should either be overturned or have more restrictions compared to 51% who thought Roe v. Wade should either be kept as is or strengthened. Broken down by self-identified pro-life vs pro-choice labels, the results looked like this:
(Click to enlarge)
So
  • As you’d expect, pro-life people were more likely to say Roe v. Wade should be overturned or further restricted and pro-choice people were more likely to say the opposite.
  • Even so, 18% of self-described pro-lifers said Roe v. Wade should be kept as is or strengthened, and 21% of pro-choicers thought it should be further restricted or overturned.
The poll described Roe v. Wade as establishing a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, but it did not explain the specifics. Roe v. Wadealong with Doe v. Bolton, made it difficult if not impossible to constitutionally limit abortion in the first two trimesters. (Planned Parenthood v. Casey moved the standard from trimesters to fetal viability, but the situation is largely the same: restrictions in the first or second trimester are difficult to pass or uphold.)

I don’t think most people are aware of that level of detail, which may explain why some of the same people who say they support Roe v. Wade also think abortion shouldn’t be allowed in some of the circumstances Roe v. Wade specifically mandates.
The same poll asked: Which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on abortion?
  1. Abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy.
  2. Abortion should be allowed only during the first six months of pregnancy.
  3. Abortion should be allowed only during the first three months of pregnancy.
  4. Abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.
  5. Abortion should be allowed only to save the life of the woman.
  6. Abortion should never be permitted under any circumstance.
47% of respondents chose options 4-6, i.e. abortion should be permitted only in the “hard cases,” or not at all. Only 29% thought abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy. 
Based on my experiences with pro-life and pro-choice activists, I would expect pro-lifers to mostly say abortion should be allowed only in the hard cases, or never at all, and I’d expect pro-choicers to mostly say abortion should be allowed in at least the first 6 months of pregnancy. Here are the actual responses:
Compared to my expectations, 12% of pro-lifers answered differently (9% said abortion should be allowed in the first three months, 3% said it should be allowed even later). And a whopping 54% of pro-choicers answered differently: 33% said abortion should be allowed only in the first three months, and 21% said it should be allowed only for the hard cases. In other words, over half of self-identified pro-choice people believe abortion should be restricted in ways Roe v. Wade absolutely does not allow
I also wonder how many of them realize that the hard cases account for less (probably much less) than 5% of abortions performed in the U.S. If the data above are accurate, about 1 out of 5 pro-choicers think over 95% of abortions (those performed on healthy fetuses carried by healthy women in pregnancies resulting from consensual sex) shouldn’t be allowed.
Also worth noting: contrary to the “old white men” trope, white people tended to be more pro-choice (more likely to support abortion in more circumstances) than everyone else:
A 45% plurality of people under age 45, and 45% of women, say abortion should be limited to the hard cases. Only 32% of people under age 45 and 27% of women believe abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy.
One more interesting tidbit: a full 68% of pro-choicers said they would support a measure requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. You’d think such a law would be easy common ground, middle-of-the-road type stuff, but June Medical Services v. Russo suggests otherwise.
Meanwhile, the poll also asked people to explain when they believe life begins. Specifically: do you believe human life begins…
  • at conception
  • within the first eight weeks of pregnancy
  • within the first three months of pregnancy
  • between three and six months
  • when a fetus is viable and can live outside the womb
  • at birth
  • unsure
A plurality (38%) said life begins at conception; 16% said life begins at birth. Broken down by pro-life and pro-choice labels:
Pro-lifers are relatively monolithic on this (72% said life begins at conception), whereas pro-choice people are much more evenly divided (and twice as likely to say they’re unsure). No doubt some of these answers reflect the respondents’ philosophical views about when a human becomes a person, as opposed to their understanding of biology (e.g. when an organism is a living member of the species homo sapiens). Still, I continue to suspect that a significant proportion of pro-choice people aren’t just conflating philosophy with biology but are actually misunderstanding biology itself. Indeed, a survey of pro-choice people found that if it were common knowledge that a fetus is a biological human, 90% believed abortion rates would decrease and 83% believed support for legal abortion would decrease.
This NPR/PBS poll was filled with information suggesting that the legal status quo for abortion in the U.S. is actually pretty dramatically at odds with what most Americans think makes sense. So how did NPR cover the poll?
Mmmk.

Poll: Pro-choicers support a lot more abortion restrictions than you’d expect.

When polls regarding abortion ask Americans about Roe v. Wade, most people say they want the Supreme Court decision upheld. But when the same polls ask people when they think abortion should be legal, most believe there should be more restrictions than Roe v. Wade actually allows. I’ve summarized these contradictory results before. Today I was reading a 2019 NPR/PBS Marist poll which captured the same phenomenon.

The poll asked: In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutional right for women to legally obtain an abortion. Over time, other laws have expanded or restricted this ruling. Do you think the U.S. Supreme Court today should decide to:

  • Overturn Roe v. Wade
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but add more restrictions
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but reduce some of the restrictions
  • Expand Roe v. Wade establishing the right to abortion under any circumstance
  • Keep Roe v. Wade the way it is
  • Unsure
The poll found that 39% of respondents thought Roe v. Wade should either be overturned or have more restrictions compared to 51% who thought Roe v. Wade should either be kept as is or strengthened. Broken down by self-identified pro-life vs pro-choice labels, the results looked like this:
(Click to enlarge)
So
  • As you’d expect, pro-life people were more likely to say Roe v. Wade should be overturned or further restricted and pro-choice people were more likely to say the opposite.
  • Even so, 18% of self-described pro-lifers said Roe v. Wade should be kept as is or strengthened, and 21% of pro-choicers thought it should be further restricted or overturned.
The poll described Roe v. Wade as establishing a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, but it did not explain the specifics. Roe v. Wadealong with Doe v. Bolton, made it difficult if not impossible to constitutionally limit abortion in the first two trimesters. (Planned Parenthood v. Casey moved the standard from trimesters to fetal viability, but the situation is largely the same: restrictions in the first or second trimester are difficult to pass or uphold.)

I don’t think most people are aware of that level of detail, which may explain why some of the same people who say they support Roe v. Wade also think abortion shouldn’t be allowed in some of the circumstances Roe v. Wade specifically mandates.
The same poll asked: Which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on abortion?
  1. Abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy.
  2. Abortion should be allowed only during the first six months of pregnancy.
  3. Abortion should be allowed only during the first three months of pregnancy.
  4. Abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.
  5. Abortion should be allowed only to save the life of the woman.
  6. Abortion should never be permitted under any circumstance.
47% of respondents chose options 4-6, i.e. abortion should be permitted only in the “hard cases,” or not at all. Only 29% thought abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy. 
Based on my experiences with pro-life and pro-choice activists, I would expect pro-lifers to mostly say abortion should be allowed only in the hard cases, or never at all, and I’d expect pro-choicers to mostly say abortion should be allowed in at least the first 6 months of pregnancy. Here are the actual responses:
Compared to my expectations, 12% of pro-lifers answered differently (9% said abortion should be allowed in the first three months, 3% said it should be allowed even later). And a whopping 54% of pro-choicers answered differently: 33% said abortion should be allowed only in the first three months, and 21% said it should be allowed only for the hard cases. In other words, over half of self-identified pro-choice people believe abortion should be restricted in ways Roe v. Wade absolutely does not allow
I also wonder how many of them realize that the hard cases account for less (probably much less) than 5% of abortions performed in the U.S. If the data above are accurate, about 1 out of 5 pro-choicers think over 95% of abortions (those performed on healthy fetuses carried by healthy women in pregnancies resulting from consensual sex) shouldn’t be allowed.
Also worth noting: contrary to the “old white men” trope, white people tended to be more pro-choice (more likely to support abortion in more circumstances) than everyone else:
A 45% plurality of people under age 45, and 45% of women, say abortion should be limited to the hard cases. Only 32% of people under age 45 and 27% of women believe abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy.
One more interesting tidbit: a full 68% of pro-choicers said they would support a measure requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. You’d think such a law would be easy common ground, middle-of-the-road type stuff, but June Medical Services v. Russo suggests otherwise.
Meanwhile, the poll also asked people to explain when they believe life begins. Specifically: do you believe human life begins…
  • at conception
  • within the first eight weeks of pregnancy
  • within the first three months of pregnancy
  • between three and six months
  • when a fetus is viable and can live outside the womb
  • at birth
  • unsure
A plurality (38%) said life begins at conception; 16% said life begins at birth. Broken down by pro-life and pro-choice labels:
Pro-lifers are relatively monolithic on this (72% said life begins at conception), whereas pro-choice people are much more evenly divided (and twice as likely to say they’re unsure). No doubt some of these answers reflect the respondents’ philosophical views about when a human becomes a person, as opposed to their understanding of biology (e.g. when an organism is a living member of the species homo sapiens). Still, I continue to suspect that a significant proportion of pro-choice people aren’t just conflating philosophy with biology but are actually misunderstanding biology itself. Indeed, a survey of pro-choice people found that if it were common knowledge that a fetus is a biological human, 90% believed abortion rates would decrease and 83% believed support for legal abortion would decrease.
This NPR/PBS poll was filled with information suggesting that the legal status quo for abortion in the U.S. is actually pretty dramatically at odds with what most Americans think makes sense. So how did NPR cover the poll?
Mmmk.

Female Republican politicians were the most vocal about defunding Planned Parenthood

On May 18 the Journal of Women, Politics, & Policy published “Standing Up For Women? How Party and Gender Influence Politicians’ Online Discussion of Planned Parenthood.” In this study, researcher Morgan Johnstonbaugh analyzed tweets by members of the 114th House of Representatives regarding Planned Parenthood. She narrowed the focus to tweets made between July 1 and Novemeber 1, 2015, during a heated debate on whether to defund PP in response to the CMP videos suggesting PP sells fetal organs.

Johnstonbaugh hypothesized that women would write more tweets about Planned Parenthood than men, and Democrats would write more than Republicans.

For her hypothesis about gender, Johnstonbaugh theorized that “men may be disinclined from dicussing and addressing women’s issues because feminine issues are perceived as having lower status.” (If she is aware of the “no uterus, no opinion” factor — the vocal and persistent insistence that men have no right to speak about abortion — she doesn’t mention it.) Johnstonbaugh’s analysis did find that female Democrats are more vocal about this issue than male Democrats, and female Republicans are more vocal about the issue than male Republicans.

For her hypothesis about political party, Johnstonbaugh theorized that there would be more PP-related tweets from Democrats than Republicans because Democrats focus more than Republican’s on women’s issues. To her surprise, though, her analysis found the opposite to the be the case.

Female Republicans constituted 5% of the House and wrote 12.6% of the tweets about Planned Parenthood while male Republicans made up 51.7% of the House and wrote 68.6% of the tweets about Planned Parenthood.

and

While it is clear that women write more tweets about Planned Parenthood than men within their political party, female Republicans are the most active members in the online discussion.

Female Republicans were the most vocal group, followed by male Republicans, female Democrats, and lastly male Democrats.

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah

As I read these results I wondered if they reflect the “intensity gap” between pro-choice and pro-life people: the idea that those of us against abortion are more likely to feel passionately about the issue than those who support the status quo. For example, according to PRRI, “Americans who oppose the legality of abortion (27%) are significantly more likely than those who support the legality of abortion (18%) to say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on the issue.”

Apparently Johnstonbaugh didn’t enterain the intensity gap theory, though. Instead she speculated that Republicans wrote more PP-related tweets because pro-life ideas are simplistic, whereas the pro-choice perspective is too nuanced to convey over Twitter:

This unexpected finding may be related to the ease with which provocative pro-life propaganda can be spread on Twitter by incorporating videos, images, and only 140 characters for each message, compared to regulations or statistics meant to support Planned Parenthood, which may require a greater amount of text or explanation.

This theory is so transparently biased I actually laughed a little when I read it. I expect pro-lifers will continue to mystify researchers who can’t see past their own worldviews.

Not all pro-choice tweets require a lot of nuance.

Johnstonbaugh points out that previous research found female Democrats are traditionally the most vocal about women’s issues, suggesting an apparent contradiction with this study’s finding. However the contradiction exists only if we view Planned Parenthood solely through a “women’s issue” lens. Johnstonbaugh’s additional analysis confirms that many people see more factors in the PP controversy.

She examines how often House members framed the Planned Parenthood discussion in the following ways:

  1. Women’s Issue: defunding PP is important particularly to women
  2. Planned Parenthood Healthcare: defunding PP will harm people who rely on the org for healthcare
  3. Alternative Healthcare: there are better healthcare options than PP
  4. Fetal Rights Issue: defunding PP will help protect unborn children
  5. Condemn Planned Parenthood: defunding PP is a way to condemn PP for immoral treatment of fetal tissue
Unsurprisingly, she found almost exclusively Democrats used the frame “Planned Parenthood Healthcare,” while Republicans used the frames “Alternative Healthcare,” “Fetal Rights Issue,” and “Condemn Planned Parenthood.” Both parties used the frame “Women’s Issue,” though Democrats used it more. But here’s the important part:

While both female Republicans and Democrats discussed Planned Parenthood as a women’s issue and healthcare issue, Republican women also discussed it as a fetal rights issue.

If you have any understanding of the pro-life perspective, this finding should be predictable. Pro-life people recognize the fact that abortion kills humans. We view those humans as children (morally relevant young humans deserving protection). So we view abortion first and foremost as a human rights violation. Of course pro-life politicians are going to discuss Planned Parenthood in the context of fetal rights. That’s basically another way of saying pro-life people will discuss abortion from a pro-life perspective.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri

Johnstonbaugh’s finding about Republicans vs Democrats is mystifying only if you view PP solely through the “women’s issue” framing, but I don’t know why anyone would do that. You don’t have to be that involved in the abortion debate to know that many people view PP as a more complicated and controversial organization. Huge swaths of the country — including countless women, btw — see abortion as an issue that affects not only women but also preborn children. Pro-life Republican women might be less vocal about women’s issues generally, but Planned Parenthood is not simply a “women’s issue” topic. It goes well beyond that.

Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Indiana

Johnstonbaugh called her findings about Republicans vs Democrats “unexpected,” “counterintuitive,” and “surprising,” but they shouldn’t be. Pro-lifers have been quite vocal, for decades, about the facts that we view abortion as a human rights issue and we care deeply about the problem. If pro-choice people could internalize our most basic premise — not agree with it necessarily, just recognize it’s what we think — they would be caught off guard less often.

Female Republican politicians were the most vocal about defunding Planned Parenthood

On May 18 the Journal of Women, Politics, & Policy published “Standing Up For Women? How Party and Gender Influence Politicians’ Online Discussion of Planned Parenthood.” In this study, researcher Morgan Johnstonbaugh analyzed tweets by members of the 114th House of Representatives regarding Planned Parenthood. She narrowed the focus to tweets made between July 1 and Novemeber 1, 2015, during a heated debate on whether to defund PP in response to the CMP videos suggesting PP sells fetal organs.

Johnstonbaugh hypothesized that women would write more tweets about Planned Parenthood than men, and Democrats would write more than Republicans.

For her hypothesis about gender, Johnstonbaugh theorized that “men may be disinclined from dicussing and addressing women’s issues because feminine issues are perceived as having lower status.” (If she is aware of the “no uterus, no opinion” factor — the vocal and persistent insistence that men have no right to speak about abortion — she doesn’t mention it.) Johnstonbaugh’s analysis did find that female Democrats are more vocal about this issue than male Democrats, and female Republicans are more vocal about the issue than male Republicans.

For her hypothesis about political party, Johnstonbaugh theorized that there would be more PP-related tweets from Democrats than Republicans because Democrats focus more than Republican’s on women’s issues. To her surprise, though, her analysis found the opposite to the be the case.

Female Republicans constituted 5% of the House and wrote 12.6% of the tweets about Planned Parenthood while male Republicans made up 51.7% of the House and wrote 68.6% of the tweets about Planned Parenthood.

and

While it is clear that women write more tweets about Planned Parenthood than men within their political party, female Republicans are the most active members in the online discussion.

Female Republicans were the most vocal group, followed by male Republicans, female Democrats, and lastly male Democrats.

Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah

As I read these results I wondered if they reflect the “intensity gap” between pro-choice and pro-life people: the idea that those of us against abortion are more likely to feel passionately about the issue than those who support the status quo. For example, according to PRRI, “Americans who oppose the legality of abortion (27%) are significantly more likely than those who support the legality of abortion (18%) to say they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on the issue.”

Apparently Johnstonbaugh didn’t enterain the intensity gap theory, though. Instead she speculated that Republicans wrote more PP-related tweets because pro-life ideas are simplistic, whereas the pro-choice perspective is too nuanced to convey over Twitter:

This unexpected finding may be related to the ease with which provocative pro-life propaganda can be spread on Twitter by incorporating videos, images, and only 140 characters for each message, compared to regulations or statistics meant to support Planned Parenthood, which may require a greater amount of text or explanation.

This theory is so transparently biased I actually laughed a little when I read it. I expect pro-lifers will continue to mystify researchers who can’t see past their own worldviews.

Not all pro-choice tweets require a lot of nuance.

Johnstonbaugh points out that previous research found female Democrats are traditionally the most vocal about women’s issues, suggesting an apparent contradiction with this study’s finding. However the contradiction exists only if we view Planned Parenthood solely through a “women’s issue” lens. Johnstonbaugh’s additional analysis confirms that many people see more factors in the PP controversy.

She examines how often House members framed the Planned Parenthood discussion in the following ways:

  1. Women’s Issue: defunding PP is important particularly to women
  2. Planned Parenthood Healthcare: defunding PP will harm people who rely on the org for healthcare
  3. Alternative Healthcare: there are better healthcare options than PP
  4. Fetal Rights Issue: defunding PP will help protect unborn children
  5. Condemn Planned Parenthood: defunding PP is a way to condemn PP for immoral treatment of fetal tissue
Unsurprisingly, she found almost exclusively Democrats used the frame “Planned Parenthood Healthcare,” while Republicans used the frames “Alternative Healthcare,” “Fetal Rights Issue,” and “Condemn Planned Parenthood.” Both parties used the frame “Women’s Issue,” though Democrats used it more. But here’s the important part:

While both female Republicans and Democrats discussed Planned Parenthood as a women’s issue and healthcare issue, Republican women also discussed it as a fetal rights issue.

If you have any understanding of the pro-life perspective, this finding should be predictable. Pro-life people recognize the fact that abortion kills humans. We view those humans as children (morally relevant young humans deserving protection). So we view abortion first and foremost as a human rights violation. Of course pro-life politicians are going to discuss Planned Parenthood in the context of fetal rights. That’s basically another way of saying pro-life people will discuss abortion from a pro-life perspective.

Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri

Johnstonbaugh’s finding about Republicans vs Democrats is mystifying only if you view PP solely through the “women’s issue” framing, but I don’t know why anyone would do that. You don’t have to be that involved in the abortion debate to know that many people view PP as a more complicated and controversial organization. Huge swaths of the country — including countless women, btw — see abortion as an issue that affects not only women but also preborn children. Pro-life Republican women might be less vocal about women’s issues generally, but Planned Parenthood is not simply a “women’s issue” topic. It goes well beyond that.

Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Indiana

Johnstonbaugh called her findings about Republicans vs Democrats “unexpected,” “counterintuitive,” and “surprising,” but they shouldn’t be. Pro-lifers have been quite vocal, for decades, about the facts that we view abortion as a human rights issue and we care deeply about the problem. If pro-choice people could internalize our most basic premise — not agree with it necessarily, just recognize it’s what we think — they would be caught off guard less often.

A former late-term abortion nurse speaks out

Warren Hern is one of the few people in the United States who openly performs abortions even after 24 weeks gestation. He performs abortions in Colorado, one of a handful of states that have no gestational limits on abortion — that is, it is legal to perform abortion for any reason at any point in the pregnancy. (Pro-life advocates on the ground are working to change that.)

3D image of a 28-week-old baby in the womb

Hern has gone on record explaining that the later abortions he performs are not always for women facing any grave medical outcome. He has also published work exploring how abortion workers (both doctors and nurses) are emotionally and psychologically impacted by late-term abortion. His work has been incredibly frank, providing a sharp contrast to the strident euphemisms of many pro-choice advocates.

Julie Wilkinson worked as a nurse in Hern’s clinic for years, but she is now passionately pro-life and works in a NICU instead. I recently read a piece in New American about her conversion. Here are a few random thoughts a bit too long for a FB post:

Though an abortion was not something I ever planned to have, I rationalized the deaths of the infants: All the abused babies and children were better off going to heaven than being born and suffering if they were unwanted.

Several notes about this mentality:

  1. Usually religiosity correlates with being anti-abortion. Still it’s interesting (and disheartening) to see how belief in an afterlife can help people feel complacent about taking lives. This is in line with what we’ve previously written about the “Abortion Religion,” in which abortion supporters appropriate supernatural concepts like reincarnation to justify violence against children in the womb.
  2. The idea that children born of unintended pregnancies will be unwanted is largely a myth. Research has found that the vast majority of women who sought but were denied abortion and went on to birth their children raised their children themselves and bonded to their children just fine.
  3. Notice that very few (if any) people take the above mentality and apply it to born children. We don’t argue that the solution to child abuse is to euthanize the children being abused, so they can be better off in heaven.
Continuing…

I was raised a Christian and still considered myself one, mind you, but I attended church rarely.

This makes sense. Being pro-choice is inversely correlated with church attendance.

After a few weeks, I was taught how to assist with late cases, 13-24 weeks. … I would hand sterile instruments to the doctor so that he could withdraw amniotic fluid from the uterus and replace it with a concentrated urea (salt) solution, which I was responsible to mix. He said that the solution caused the placenta to separate from the uterus, resulting in the fetus dying. The truth was, the babies likely suffered terribly in the salt solution, their fragile skin and lungs being burned.

Good time to suggest everyone read the January 2020 Journal of Medical Ethics article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain,” which argues the fetus may feel pain as early as 13 weeks.

An early troubling situation occurred when a married, successful couple came to visit the clinic. They wanted a child, but they found out at 16 weeks that she was carrying twins and were not sure if twins would fit into their lifestyle. That visit bothered most of the workers, but it was no trouble for the doctor, who aborted the couple’s healthy babies a couple weeks later.

Another example of how later abortions are not exclusively done for medical reasons. On the contrary, based on what information we can find, it appears later abortions are usually not for medical reasons. In fact, Hern himself has published research saying only 30% of his patients seek second and third trimester abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality.

After a couple years, I believe the Holy Spirit began to nudge me.

I feel conflicted about this idea. On the one hand, I’m grateful for every person who moves from a pro-choice to a pro-life position, and I recognize that faith plays a role in those conversions for some people. On the other hand, if it’s the Holy Spirit doing this work, why the subtlety? Why a “nudge”? Why not a massive shove in the other direction, similar to Saul on the road to Damascus?

But I’m an atheist, so for me these questions are really just rhetorical. Whatever her reasons, I’m glad Julie changed her mind.

However, my heart didn’t change overnight. Time was necessary to change my years-long belief in a woman’s “right to choose.”

She’s not alone here. A lot of conversions are stories of a slow process, often over years. Please remember that factor when you’re talking about abortion with people who disagree. Be patient as you plant ideas, and don’t worry if you don’t see any major changes immediately. Just keep going.

After I left Boulder, I never told people what I had done there. I got married, and we had three beautiful daughters. I did not tell them my story either; I just made sure they were raised to be pro-life. It felt very lonely to keep that dreadful secret.

Julie’s reaction demonstrates why it’s so tricky to conduct accurate research regarding people’s feelings about their own choices — people who feel shame, regret, guilt, deep sorrow, or other negative emotions are less likely to speak up than people who are satisfied with their decisions. This problem is one of the major limitations of the recent highly touted study claiming 95% of women do not regret their abortions. Read more here.

Then a few years ago, another person told me I should reach out to Abby Johnson, who was a former abortion clinic director who held retreats for ex-abortion workers. So I did. I found a small, generally invisible group of people who are passionately pro-life. We have seen abortion from the inside, and we know the truth.

Abby Johnson’s pro-life work is unique and so needed. I’m glad she has created this space for former abortion workers.

A former late-term abortion nurse speaks out

Warren Hern is one of the few people in the United States who openly performs abortions even after 24 weeks gestation. He performs abortions in Colorado, one of a handful of states that have no gestational limits on abortion — that is, it is legal to perform abortion for any reason at any point in the pregnancy. (Pro-life advocates on the ground are working to change that.)

3D image of a 28-week-old baby in the womb

Hern has gone on record explaining that the later abortions he performs are not always for women facing any grave medical outcome. He has also published work exploring how abortion workers (both doctors and nurses) are emotionally and psychologically impacted by late-term abortion. His work has been incredibly frank, providing a sharp contrast to the strident euphemisms of many pro-choice advocates.

Julie Wilkinson worked as a nurse in Hern’s clinic for years, but she is now passionately pro-life and works in a NICU instead. I recently read a piece in New American about her conversion. Here are a few random thoughts a bit too long for a FB post:

Though an abortion was not something I ever planned to have, I rationalized the deaths of the infants: All the abused babies and children were better off going to heaven than being born and suffering if they were unwanted.

Several notes about this mentality:

  1. Usually religiosity correlates with being anti-abortion. Still it’s interesting (and disheartening) to see how belief in an afterlife can help people feel complacent about taking lives. This is in line with what we’ve previously written about the “Abortion Religion,” in which abortion supporters appropriate supernatural concepts like reincarnation to justify violence against children in the womb.
  2. The idea that children born of unintended pregnancies will be unwanted is largely a myth. Research has found that the vast majority of women who sought but were denied abortion and went on to birth their children raised their children themselves and bonded to their children just fine.
  3. Notice that very few (if any) people take the above mentality and apply it to born children. We don’t argue that the solution to child abuse is to euthanize the children being abused, so they can be better off in heaven.
Continuing…

I was raised a Christian and still considered myself one, mind you, but I attended church rarely.

This makes sense. Being pro-choice is inversely correlated with church attendance.

After a few weeks, I was taught how to assist with late cases, 13-24 weeks. … I would hand sterile instruments to the doctor so that he could withdraw amniotic fluid from the uterus and replace it with a concentrated urea (salt) solution, which I was responsible to mix. He said that the solution caused the placenta to separate from the uterus, resulting in the fetus dying. The truth was, the babies likely suffered terribly in the salt solution, their fragile skin and lungs being burned.

Good time to suggest everyone read the January 2020 Journal of Medical Ethics article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain,” which argues the fetus may feel pain as early as 13 weeks.

An early troubling situation occurred when a married, successful couple came to visit the clinic. They wanted a child, but they found out at 16 weeks that she was carrying twins and were not sure if twins would fit into their lifestyle. That visit bothered most of the workers, but it was no trouble for the doctor, who aborted the couple’s healthy babies a couple weeks later.

Another example of how later abortions are not exclusively done for medical reasons. On the contrary, based on what information we can find, it appears later abortions are usually not for medical reasons. In fact, Hern himself has published research saying only 30% of his patients seek second and third trimester abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality.

After a couple years, I believe the Holy Spirit began to nudge me.

I feel conflicted about this idea. On the one hand, I’m grateful for every person who moves from a pro-choice to a pro-life position, and I recognize that faith plays a role in those conversions for some people. On the other hand, if it’s the Holy Spirit doing this work, why the subtlety? Why a “nudge”? Why not a massive shove in the other direction, similar to Saul on the road to Damascus?

But I’m an atheist, so for me these questions are really just rhetorical. Whatever her reasons, I’m glad Julie changed her mind.

However, my heart didn’t change overnight. Time was necessary to change my years-long belief in a woman’s “right to choose.”

She’s not alone here. A lot of conversions are stories of a slow process, often over years. Please remember that factor when you’re talking about abortion with people who disagree. Be patient as you plant ideas, and don’t worry if you don’t see any major changes immediately. Just keep going.

After I left Boulder, I never told people what I had done there. I got married, and we had three beautiful daughters. I did not tell them my story either; I just made sure they were raised to be pro-life. It felt very lonely to keep that dreadful secret.

Julie’s reaction demonstrates why it’s so tricky to conduct accurate research regarding people’s feelings about their own choices — people who feel shame, regret, guilt, deep sorrow, or other negative emotions are less likely to speak up than people who are satisfied with their decisions. This problem is one of the major limitations of the recent highly touted study claiming 95% of women do not regret their abortions. Read more here.

Then a few years ago, another person told me I should reach out to Abby Johnson, who was a former abortion clinic director who held retreats for ex-abortion workers. So I did. I found a small, generally invisible group of people who are passionately pro-life. We have seen abortion from the inside, and we know the truth.

Abby Johnson’s pro-life work is unique and so needed. I’m glad she has created this space for former abortion workers.

Sources for “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths”

Today Oregon Right to Life is hosting the “Together We Advocate” Conference, the largest pro-life conference in the Pacific northwest. Monica Snyder, SPL co-leader, will be giving a slightly updated version of her presentation “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths,” including where those myths come from and the research that undermines the myths’ claims. Here are the sources used to create the presentation.

Myth #1:
We don’t know when human life begins.
Articles:
Biology
and embryology textbooks and relevant quotes:
  • Scott Gilbert,
    Developmental Biology, 11
    th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer
    Associates, 2016: “Fertilization accomplishes two separate ends: sex (the
    combining of genes derived from two parents) and reproduction (the
    generation of a new organism).”
  • T.W. Sadler,
    Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott
    Williams & Wilkins, 2006:”Development begins with fertilization,
    the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete,
    the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote.”
  • Erich
    Blechschmidt, Brian Freeman, The Ontogenetic Basis of Human Anatomy: The
    Biodynamic Approach to Development from Conception to Adulthood, North
    Atlantic Books, June 2004: “We talk of human development not because
    a jumble of cells, which is perhaps initially atypical, gradually turns
    more and more into a human, but rather because the human being develops
    from a uniquely human cell. There is no state in human development prior
    to which one could claim that a being exists with not-yet-human
    individuality. On the basis of anatomical studies, we know today that no
    developmental phase exists that constitutes a transition from the
    not-yet-human to the human.” & “In short, a fertilized egg
    (conceptus) is already a human being.”
  • Keith L. Moore,
    The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition.
    Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003: “Human development begins at
    fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm
    (spermatozoon development) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to
    form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent
    cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” And
    “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an
    embryo).”
  • Scott Gilbert,
    Developmental Biology, 6th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates,
    2001:“When we consider a dog, for instance, we usually picture an adult.
    But the dog is a “dog” from the moment of fertilization of a dog egg by a
    dog sperm. It remains a dog even as a senescent dying hound. Therefore,
    the dog is actually the entire life cycle of the animal, from
    fertilization through death.”
  • Ronan R.
    O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology & Teratology, 3rd
    Edition, New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001: “Although life is a continuous
    process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary
    circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when
    the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the
    oocyte.”
  • Ida G. Dox, B.
    John Melloni, Gilbert Eisner, The HarperCollins Illustrated Medical
    Dictionary, 2001: “An Embryo is an organism in the earliest stages of
    development.”
  • Human
    Embryology, William J Larsen, 3rd Edition, 2001: “In this text, we begin
    our description of the developing human with the formation and
    differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will
    unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new
    individual.”
  • William J.
    Larsen, Essentials of Human Embryology. New York: Churchill Livingstone,
    1998: “Human embryos begin development following the fusion of
    definitive male and female gametes during fertilization… This moment of
    zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic
    development.”
  • Bruce M.
    Carlson, Patten’s Foundations of Embryology. 6th edition. New York:
    McGraw-Hill, 1996: “Almost all higher animals start their lives from
    a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)… The time of fertilization
    represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the
    individual.”
  • Keith L. Moore
    and T.V.N. Persaud. Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth
    Defects. 4th edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1993:
    “Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr.
    zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being. The
    common expression ‘fertilized ovum’ refers to the zygote.”
  • Clark Edward
    Corliss, Patten’s Human Embryology: Elements of Clinical Development. New
    York: McGraw Hill, 1976. “It is the penetration of the ovum by a
    spermatozoan and resultant mingling of the nuclear material each brings to
    the union that constitutes the culmination of the process of fertilization
    and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual.”
  • E.L. Potter and
    J.M. Craig, Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant, 3rd edition. Chicago:
    Year Book Medical Publishers, 1975: “Every time a sperm cell and ovum
    unite a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live
    unless its death is brought about by some specific condition.”
  • J.P. Greenhill
    and E.A. Friedman, Biological Principles and Modern Practice of
    Obstetrics. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1974: “The term conception
    refers to the union of the male and female pronuclear elements of
    procreation from which a new living being develops. It is synonymous with
    the terms fecundation, impregnation, and fertilization.”
  • Leslie Brainerd
    Arey, Developmental Anatomy, 7
    th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders,
    1974: “The formation, maturation and meeting of a male and female sex cell
    are all preliminary to their actual union into a combined cell, or zygote,
    which definitely marks the beginning of a new individual. The penetration
    of the ovum by the spermatozoon, and the coming together and pooling of
    their respective nuclei, constitutes the process of fertilization.”

Biologists’ Consensus on ‘When Life Begins’,” Steven Andrew Jacobs, Social Science Research Network, July 25 2018

Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:
Myth #2:
Most or all late-term abortions are medically necessary.
Articles:
Polls:
Data:
Interviews of late-term
abortion doctors:
Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:
· 
Myth #3:
Abortion restrictions don’t stop abortions.
Articles:
Data
(Worldwide):
Data
(National):
American
studies:
Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:

Sources for “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths”

Today Oregon Right to Life is hosting the “Together We Advocate” Conference, the largest pro-life conference in the Pacific northwest. Monica Snyder, SPL co-leader, will be giving a slightly updated version of her presentation “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths,” including where those myths come from and the research that undermines the myths’ claims. Here are the sources used to create the presentation.

Myth #1:
We don’t know when human life begins.
Articles:
Biology
and embryology textbooks and relevant quotes:
  • Scott Gilbert,
    Developmental Biology, 11
    th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer
    Associates, 2016: “Fertilization accomplishes two separate ends: sex (the
    combining of genes derived from two parents) and reproduction (the
    generation of a new organism).”
  • T.W. Sadler,
    Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott
    Williams & Wilkins, 2006:”Development begins with fertilization,
    the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete,
    the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote.”
  • Erich
    Blechschmidt, Brian Freeman, The Ontogenetic Basis of Human Anatomy: The
    Biodynamic Approach to Development from Conception to Adulthood, North
    Atlantic Books, June 2004: “We talk of human development not because
    a jumble of cells, which is perhaps initially atypical, gradually turns
    more and more into a human, but rather because the human being develops
    from a uniquely human cell. There is no state in human development prior
    to which one could claim that a being exists with not-yet-human
    individuality. On the basis of anatomical studies, we know today that no
    developmental phase exists that constitutes a transition from the
    not-yet-human to the human.” & “In short, a fertilized egg
    (conceptus) is already a human being.”
  • Keith L. Moore,
    The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition.
    Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003: “Human development begins at
    fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm
    (spermatozoon development) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to
    form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent
    cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” And
    “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an
    embryo).”
  • Scott Gilbert,
    Developmental Biology, 6th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates,
    2001:“When we consider a dog, for instance, we usually picture an adult.
    But the dog is a “dog” from the moment of fertilization of a dog egg by a
    dog sperm. It remains a dog even as a senescent dying hound. Therefore,
    the dog is actually the entire life cycle of the animal, from
    fertilization through death.”
  • Ronan R.
    O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology & Teratology, 3rd
    Edition, New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001: “Although life is a continuous
    process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary
    circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when
    the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the
    oocyte.”
  • Ida G. Dox, B.
    John Melloni, Gilbert Eisner, The HarperCollins Illustrated Medical
    Dictionary, 2001: “An Embryo is an organism in the earliest stages of
    development.”
  • Human
    Embryology, William J Larsen, 3rd Edition, 2001: “In this text, we begin
    our description of the developing human with the formation and
    differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will
    unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new
    individual.”
  • William J.
    Larsen, Essentials of Human Embryology. New York: Churchill Livingstone,
    1998: “Human embryos begin development following the fusion of
    definitive male and female gametes during fertilization… This moment of
    zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic
    development.”
  • Bruce M.
    Carlson, Patten’s Foundations of Embryology. 6th edition. New York:
    McGraw-Hill, 1996: “Almost all higher animals start their lives from
    a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)… The time of fertilization
    represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the
    individual.”
  • Keith L. Moore
    and T.V.N. Persaud. Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth
    Defects. 4th edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1993:
    “Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr.
    zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being. The
    common expression ‘fertilized ovum’ refers to the zygote.”
  • Clark Edward
    Corliss, Patten’s Human Embryology: Elements of Clinical Development. New
    York: McGraw Hill, 1976. “It is the penetration of the ovum by a
    spermatozoan and resultant mingling of the nuclear material each brings to
    the union that constitutes the culmination of the process of fertilization
    and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual.”
  • E.L. Potter and
    J.M. Craig, Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant, 3rd edition. Chicago:
    Year Book Medical Publishers, 1975: “Every time a sperm cell and ovum
    unite a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live
    unless its death is brought about by some specific condition.”
  • J.P. Greenhill
    and E.A. Friedman, Biological Principles and Modern Practice of
    Obstetrics. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1974: “The term conception
    refers to the union of the male and female pronuclear elements of
    procreation from which a new living being develops. It is synonymous with
    the terms fecundation, impregnation, and fertilization.”
  • Leslie Brainerd
    Arey, Developmental Anatomy, 7
    th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders,
    1974: “The formation, maturation and meeting of a male and female sex cell
    are all preliminary to their actual union into a combined cell, or zygote,
    which definitely marks the beginning of a new individual. The penetration
    of the ovum by the spermatozoon, and the coming together and pooling of
    their respective nuclei, constitutes the process of fertilization.”

Biologists’ Consensus on ‘When Life Begins’,” Steven Andrew Jacobs, Social Science Research Network, July 25 2018

Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:
Myth #2:
Most or all late-term abortions are medically necessary.
Articles:
Polls:
Data:
Interviews of late-term
abortion doctors:
Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:
· 
Myth #3:
Abortion restrictions don’t stop abortions.
Articles:
Data
(Worldwide):
Data
(National):
American
studies:
Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:

Even very pro-choice biologists acknowledge a human life begins at fertilization.

If you haven’t already, you should really read Biologists’ Consensus on ‘When Life Begins’, a dissertation by Steve Jacobs out of the University of Chicago. This blog post is going to be long, so here’s the summary:

  • Most Americans think “When does human life begin?” is an important question that people deserve to know the answer to so they can be informed about their reproduction decisions.
  • Most Americans think the group best suited to answer this question is biologists because Americans view this as an objective issue that can be informed by scientific knowledge.
  • Over 90% of biologists, including 69% of “very pro-choice” biologists and 80% of “pro-choice” biologists, affirm a human life begins at fertilization.
If you want more details, read on.
A scientific or philosophical question?

There’s a lot of communication breakdown in the abortion debate because “when life begins” can be either a scientific or philosophical question (or, as Jacobs puts it, a descriptive or a normative question). Often, people switch between these two approaches without even noticing. For example:

A human life begins at fertilization, so fetuses deserve legal protection throughout all of pregnancy.

This argument starts with a scientific fact and ends with a philosophical position without explaining how the speaker went from the first to the second. Here is sort of the reverse:

No one has the right to use another person’s body, so the fetus isn’t really a separate life until viability.

The speaker starts with a philosophical position and tries to use it to assert a scientific claim. Both examples are sloppy, slipping between science and philosophy without noticing or talking about it.

Jacobs decided to dig deeper into this communication breakdown. Do most Americans think the beginning of human life is a biological question or a philosophical one? Do they think the question matters in terms of the abortion debate? Who would they consider authoritative sources on this question? And what do those in authority (according to American opinion) think the answer is?

Our philosophical views stem from our scientific understanding

Before Jacobs explains his methodology and results, he does a great job reviewing how our society has traditionally viewed the interplay between science and philosophy on this issue. He cites historical examples demonstrating that people have generally believed that the philosophical (normative) flows from the biological (descriptive): whenever we know, scientifically, that we are dealing with a human life, we should protect that human. This was true even when people weren’t sure about fetal life until they could feel the baby kick: once they could feel that kick, they thought that life should be protected. And when we learned the human in the womb was alive quite a bit earlier, we outlawed abortion quite a bit earlier.

Even in Roe v. Wade, this connection between science and philosophy didn’t change: SCOTUS didn’t say “Yes, of course the embryo is a human life but abortion should be legal anyway for XYZ reasons.” Instead SCOTUS asserted that we can’t know when human life starts, and only with that lack of knowledge can we justify abortion. During oral arguments the justices and attorneys involved openly acknowledged that if we recognized the fetus as a human person, Roe v. Wade would have been “almost an impossible case”:

Justice Potter Stewart: Well, if it were established that an unborn fetus is a person within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, you would have almost an impossible case here, would you not? 

Ms Weddington [attorney representing Jane Roe]: I would have a very difficult case. 

Justice Potter Stewart: You certainly would because you’d have the same kind of thing you’d have to say that this would be the equivalent to after the child was born. 

Ms Weddington: That’s right. 

Justice Potter Stewart: If the mother thought that it bothered her health having the child around, she could have it killed. Isn’t that correct? 

Ms Weddington: That’s correct.

As Jacobs summarizes:

Courts and lawmakers have a long and consistent history of using a fetus’ developmental landmarks to form their view on when a fetus is classified as a human, which they then use as the bright line that separates legal abortions from illegal abortions. 

In other words, historically the biological question of when human life begins has mattered a lot to society, especially in terms of abortion. But does it still?


Yes, it does.

Most Americans think “When does a human’s life begin?” is an important question, best answered by biologists.

Jacobs surveyed 2,899 American adults. Here’s a quick overview of the questions and results:

  1. “How important is the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?’ in the US abortion debate? (1 = unimportant, 10 = important)” 87% rated the question as important
  2. “Americans deserve to know when a human’s life begins so they can be informed in their abortion positions and reproductive decisions. (1 = do not agree, 10 = agree)” 84% agreed
  3. “Which group is most qualified to answer the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?’”
    • Biologists (81%)
    • Religious leaders (7%)
    • Voters (7%)
    • Philosophers (4%)
    • Supreme Court Justices (2%)
  4. “Why do you think they are most qualified?” 91% of those who chose biologists argued that when life begins is an objective issue and biologists’ scientific knowledge makes them best suited to resolve the issue
It’s worth noting that the sample of Americans surveyed were mostly pro-choice (63%) and still the vast majority viewed when life begins as a biological question that was important to the abortion debate. Also worth noting—to my mystification—more than half (56%) of those who chose biologists as the relevant experts believed the biologists’ input would strengthen the pro-choice side of the abortion debate.
Wha…? How? What great scientific ignorance makes people think that input from biologists will make the pro-choice view make more sense? I recognize I must be really stuck in my worldview here, because it’s hard for me to imagine what they thought the biologists would say—perhaps some made-up crap about how embryos don’t have hearts or there’s no consensus on when life begins. I mean to be fair, given the rampant purposeful misinformation pushed by abortion rights activists masquerading as disinterested scientists, I can hardly blame the non-scientific pro-choice public for believing science is on their side.
And yet—surprise!—biologists did have a consensus, and nope, it did not strengthen the pro-choice side. 

The vast majority of biologists—even most pro-choice biologists—affirm a human life begins at fertilization.

Jacobs surveyed 5,502 biologists from 1,058 academic institutions. Of the biologists surveyed:
  • 63% were non-religious,
  • 85% were pro-choice, and
  • 95% held a PhD.
They were asked whether the following statements were correct:
  1. Implicit statement A: The end product of mammalian fertilization is a fertilized egg (‘zygote’), a new mammalian organism in the first stage of its species’ life cycle with its species’ genome.
  2. Implicit statement B: The development of a mammal begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote
  3. Explicit statement: In developmental biology, fertilization marks the beginning of a human’s life since that process produces an organism with a human genome that has begun to develop in the first stage of the human life cycle
91% said implicit statement A is correct, as did 88% for implicit statement B. That number dropped to 75% for the explicit statement, and it broke down along political lines. The following proportions of biologists (based on their own descriptions of their political position) said the explicit statement was correct:
  • 92% of very pro-life biologists
  • 92% pro-life
  • 86% neutral
  • 80% pro-choice
  • 69% very pro-choice
(As an aside for our readers, 70% of atheist biologists and 72% of agnostic biologists agreed with the explicit statement that fertilization marks the beginning of a human’s life.)
Figure 3 from the dissertation. Click to enlarge.
Jacobs also asked participants the open-ended question “From a biological perspective, how would you answer the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?'” Jacobs explains:

Most participants wrote about various points during pregnancy: when the sperm fertilizes the egg, when the zygote implants in the uterus, cell differentiation, neurogenesis, the first heartbeat, the first brain waves, the first pain response, fetal viability, and birth.

Jacobs categorized every answer that was after fertilization but before viability as “pre-viability.” The results, broken down by the biologists’ abortion stances, are as follows:

Figure 5 from the dissertation. Click to enlarge.

Unsurprisingly, very pro-choice biologists were more likely to choose an answer other than fertilization, and significantly more likely to say that—again, from a biological perspective—life begins at birth (can’t decide if this is hilarious or sad). Still, the strong majority of all biologists—even very pro-choice biologists—affirmed that a human’s life begins at fertilization.

I assume this means we can now add “life begins at conception” to the pro-science memes, right?

Further Reading:

Related Secular Pro-Life blog posts:

Other Sources: