BETWEEN 2008 and 2009, the Centers for Disease Control reported in November, the U.S. abortion rate fell 5 percent, down to the lowest point that decade. This new data is drawing the attention of people of faith whose thinking about unwanted pregnancies has become more nuanced—both in how to prevent them and what to do when they occur.
Why did the rate drop? It's not a matter of people being more cautious about becoming pregnant due to the recession; along with the overall decline, the number of abortions per 1,000 live births also dropped. But it might be linked to the fact that use of long-acting contraceptives such as IUDs, which tend to be more effective than other methods, more than doubled from 2007 to 2009, according to a national survey.
In recent years, as evangelical activism has broadened, economic justice, creation care, and immigration reform have been at the forefront of the change—but abortion hasn't. Of evangelicals, 61 percent believe abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while 33 percent say it should be legal; 84 percent of evangelicals ages 18 to 30 say they would not consider abortion if faced with an unexpected pregnancy.
While 77 percent of those young evangelicals find premarital sex unacceptable, they are also aware of facts on the ground, perhaps because they think seriously about human fallenness. Eighty-two percent, perhaps with the awareness that more-effective birth control would reduce abortion rates further, hold that those having "sex outside of marriage should use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy." (An increasing number of Catholics hold similar views, despite current church teaching.)
Equally interesting are approaches to crisis pregnancies. Noting that 73 percent of U.S. abortions are economically motivated, many evangelicals feel they must provide women with accessible, realistic alternatives, including medical, financial, and emotional support during pregnancy, along with day care and job training when needed. As Shane Claiborne put it in his book The Irresistible Revolution, "If I am going to discourage abortion, I had better be ready to adopt some babies and care for some mothers."
Especially effective programs pair each pregnant woman with a local family, which then serves as her "family" to help out as needed—from baby-sitting to waiting for the tow-truck to come when her car won't start so that she can get to work. Programs like these, found across the country, are based on the idea that solutions to intricate problems such as abortion emerge when the emphasis is placed on relationship—both between the woman and the aid provider, and among aid providers.
Reasons for the shift in approach to abortion and family planning include the maturation of the post-'60s evangelical movement and its increasing expertise, as evangelicals have now spent decades adjusting their programs to the emotional and financial complexities of these issues. If the objective is to make abortion as rare as possible, then it's logical that efforts shift to programs that accomplish that goal.
A retired fireman from Mississippi once told me, "I don't agree with abortion, but I'm not going to put down some poor girl because she had one ... I've never been in that position. Some girls are so scared of their dads—'If Dad found out he'd kill me, and the boy too.'"
There's no reason, many evangelicals note, why they should not join with other faith groups, secular organizations, and feminists in developing programs to reduce abortion. "I am decidedly pro-life," megachurch pastor Joel Hunter said. "But by working together instead of arguing, both sides [for and against legal abortion] can get what they want."
Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and writes about religion and politics in the U.S. and abroad. Her most recent book is The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good.
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