Where are the fruits?
Why Stassen’s claims that Bush’s policies increased abortion are baseless
by Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., Director of Education & Research and Laura
Hussey, M.P.M., Special Research Assistant, National Right to Life
Educational Trust Fund
In an opinion piece spreading over local newspapers and the internet, Glen
Harold Stassen, the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller
Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, claims that after years of
decline, abortions have increased under the watch of pro-life President
George W. Bush.
Attributing the alleged abortion increase to an economic downturn, Stassen
argues that the way to reduce abortions is to elect a president who will “do
something about jobs and health insurance and support for prospective
mothers” rather than one who merely offers pro-life “rhetoric.” His intended
implication is that pro-lifers should vote for Kerry, the “pro-choice”
candidate, to reduce the number of abortions.
While this twist of sense and logic is breathtaking, Stassen has a bigger
problem – neither his data nor his argument hold up under scrutiny.
Misreading the National Trend
Stassen’s thesis rests on two basic claims: one, that state abortion data
from 2001, 2002, and 2003 show a clear pattern of increase over figures from
2000 and earlier, when Bill Clinton was in power; and two, that there is an
inverse relationship between abortion and jobs, wages, health insurance, and
other economic factors — i.e., if jobs are lost, abortion increases, and so
on. From the data, the first claim is false, while the second is at best
Stassen makes his first mistake when he looks at abortion figures for 1990
and 2000 to establish the rate of decline. He notes, correctly, that there
were about 1,610,00 abortions in 1990 and 1,330,000 (actually closer to
1,313,000) in 2000, representing an overall decline of 17.4% for the decade.
Pretty much on the mark. But then he extrapolates that figure for an average
decline of 1.7% per year and reasons that abortions should have been that
much lower in each year of the Bush presidency if the trend continued.
One problem. The decline was strongest in the first half of the decade,
which began with George H.W. Bush in office, but slowed during Bill
Clinton’s term, and even reversed itself one year. In Clinton’s last year in
office, the decline was not 1.7%, but just 0.1%.
Stassen uses the faulty 1.7% figure to argue that abortions should have
declined by some 28,000 in George W. Bush’s first year in office, but if the
figure of 0.1% is used, the expected decline would have been more modest,
around 1,313 abortions. If the downward trend itself was in the process of
petering out, even this figure would be too high.
Since no national abortion data have been reported since 2000, Stassen looks
at abortion figures for 16 states over 2001, 2002, and in some cases, 2003.
Stassen confidently claims that abortions increased in 11 of those 16 states
during the Bush administration and asserts that this reflects a larger
national upward trend in abortions. Yet Stassen never demonstrates that his
16 states are representative of the 50 states. Even worse for Stassen’s case
is that some of his statistics are just flat wrong, while others are of
Some of the states Stassen cites showed increases or decreases of a couple
of percent or less over the two to three year period. This is to be
expected. Even when overall trends are up or down, there are fluctuations
that go a couple of percentage points above or below the curve in any given
couple of years. Figures have to be followed for a number of years to
identify a clear directional pattern. Seven of the 16 states Stassen cites,
Pennsylvania (+1.9%), Illinois (+0.9%), Missouri (+2.5%), South Dakota
(+2.1%), Wisconsin (+0.6%), Florida (-0.7%), and Washington (-2.1%), appear
to fall into this category. These smaller short term fluctuations are not be
sufficient for us to establish a trend.
Illinois provides a case in point. While published counts do show the number
of abortions increasing from 46,546 in 2001 to 46,945 in 2002, accounting
for the 0.9% increase Stassen mentions, more recent figures show a
substantial decrease for 2003, down to 42,228. That represents a drop of
10%, and the lowest full-year figure Illinois has seen since 1973. Taken as
a whole, this latest drop appears to be part of a larger long term downward
trend, with 2002 being a short term deviation.
Sometimes, Stassen’s figures are just plain wrong. Stassen says abortions in
Wisconsin increased by 0.6% from 2001 to 2002. The Wisconsin Department of
Health and Family Services says there were 436 fewer abortions performed in
Wisconsin in 2002 that in 2001. Stassen counts South Dakota as one of the
states in which abortions have increased since George W. Bush became
president, pointing to what he says is a 2.1% increase from 2001 to 2002. In
fact, figures from the state health agency for that period show a decrease
of 9.7% during that time frame. Stassen appears to have been looking at the
number of births, which did increase by 2.1 percent over these years.
When one shifts Wisconsin and South Dakota to the decrease column, and adds
in Illinois after its dramatic 2003 drop in abortions, Stassen’s claim that
abortions have increased in 11 out of 16 states now turns into a 8 to 8 tie,
with as many states decreasing as increasing. Hardly anything definitive.
The large increases that Stassen cites for four of the 16 states – Colorado,
Arizona, Idaho, and Michigan – raise other questions. Do these really
represent sudden, big one-time increases or is some other explanation more
plausible? There is reason to believe these may be unrepresentative
aberrations attributable to changes in the gathering of statistics rather
than to massive behavioral changes.
Look at Arizona, where Stassen reports a 26.4% increase occurring in a
single year between 2001 and 2002. While admitting that its figures did show
abortions increasing from 8,226 in 2001 to 10,397 in 2002, yielding the
enormous 26.4% increase Stassen cites, Arizona’s Department of Health
Services cautioned in its report that “It is unclear whether this increase
in the number of reported abortions represents a true increase in the actual
number of abortions performed, or, perhaps, a better response rate of
providers of non-surgical (so called medical) terminations of pregnancy.”
It was, of course, Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, who was responsible for
the approval of RU486, the abortion pill, which went on the market in late
2000. While the impact of that decision, and the massive marketing campaign
mounted by the abortion industry, has yet to be fully determined, increases
triggered by that decision surely lay at the doorstep of that administration
rather than the current one.
State officials in Colorado, where Stassen reported an astronomical 67.4%
one year increase, recently revamped their reporting regimen to address
underreporting, and sent a note to abortion “providers” reminding them that
reporting was required in Colorado. The state said they expected an increase
in reports, and declared, “No one could or should conclude that this
anticipated increase in the rate of reported terminations reflects an
increase in the true rate.”
Stassen doesn’t report these caveats. But if state officials are reluctant
to say their data indicates real increases, they don’t belong on Stassen’s
list of states with more abortions. That would leave just 6 increasing
versus 8 decreasing states, the opposite of what Stassen claims. Stassen’s
case falls apart.
The upshot of all this is that there really aren’t enough data to clearly
determine where the national trend is going at this point, and certainly no
evidence of an nationwide abortion increase to lay at the doorstep of the
The Relation of Economics and Abortion
The discussion could end right here, as the available data do not support
Stassen’s claims about an upward trend in abortions. His larger claim,
however, that abortion increases may be linked to economic declines, or
specifically, to job losses in the early years of George W. Bush’s
presidency, bears further examination.
To support his claim, Stassen, at minimum, would need to show that abortions
have increased and that increases have coincided with declines in the
economy. He would also need to rule out alternative explanations for any
such relationship. Stassen doesn’t do this. Not only do the data fail to
indicate a nationwide upsurge in abortions, but Stassen provides no economic
data whatsoever, much less the kind of statistical analysis one would need
to show that abortions and economic factors such as unemployment are linked.
Nor does he make clear, in any economic analysis, what effect Bush’s
policies had on the economy or how John Kerry’s proposed policies would
guarantee different results.
The only support Stassen offers for his case is the claim that about two
thirds of aborting women say they cannot afford the child. Stassen cites
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life as the source of this statistic, but it actually
comes from a survey published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, abortion
giant Planned Parenthood’s “special research affiliate,” in 1988. In that
survey, women were able to subjectively identify any number of factors that
they felt contributed to their abortion decision, so the financial aspect
was only one among many others (the top was that the baby would interfere
with work, school, or other responsibilities; close behind finances were
relationship issues with the father and concerns about single parenthood).
When asked which was their primary reason, only 21% listed inability to
afford the baby. This is still a significant and sad factor, and one which
many pro-lifers are rightly and diligently working to address, but hardly
the controlling variable that Stassen implies.
If Stassen’s argument held true, one would expect the largest abortion
increases to be in states where the economic decline was the greatest.
Conversely, one would anticipate abortion decreases in states where the
While some states where Stassen said abortions increased also saw increases
in their unemployment rates over those same years, there are also plenty of
counter-examples. Illinois’s abortions dropped substantially between 2002
and 2003, in spite of its unemployment rate being stuck at 6.7%, among the
worst in the nation. Ohio’s unemployment rate rose considerably relative to
most other states, but abortions there declined. If the economic determinism
Stassen assumes was valid, those state results would be reversed.
The truth is that most couples going through their first pregnancy have
questions about how the baby will change their lives and how they’ll
financially handle the responsibilities of parenthood. However, couples find
out, once the baby is born, that they do get by, and the human race
Some fearmongers publicize scientific-sounding estimates of how many tens or
hundreds of thousands of dollars it takes to raise a child, but there is no
objective income figure that officially designates one as able or unable to
“afford a child.” This is important because there is, in Stassen’s argument,
an unspoken implication that there is such a threshold and that economic
circumstances or presidential policies at some point push mothers over the
line. If there is such a relation, Stassen has a long way to go to prove it,
since his data do not lend themselves to this conclusion.
Even if economics were a causative factor, it still wouldn’t be clear that
Bush’s policies were at fault. There is a great deal of debate among
economists on just how much presidential actions affect the economy or how
long it takes for ordinary people to feel the any consequences of economic
Stassen has not ruled out alternative explanations for the job losses that
occurred early on Bush’s watch, such as the corporate scandals that began
brewing in the 1990s, the recession Bush inherited, and the devastating
impact of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. economy. Further, Stassen has ignored
the more recent economic recovery that has added jobs in the latter part of
Bush’s term and that is proceeding in spite of ongoing terror threats.
John Kerry has promised more jobs and more government programs, but Stassen
offers no real evidence that should lead us to expect that these will be
realized or will improve the economy, much less that they will reduce
abortions. One thing we do know is that John Kerry advocates policies that
will fund and facilitate abortions. It has been conclusively demonstrated in
research too extensive to discuss here, that this is one surefire way to
Stassen’s Pro-Life Credentials
Stassen presents himself as someone sympathetic to the pro-life cause who
was shocked and saddened to find out that our pro-life president’s policies
were not having the pro-life effects he anticipated. We have already shown
that Stassen’s data was flawed. But this persona that he adopts is somewhat
misleading as well.
Stassen identifies himself as “consistently pro-life,” and talks touchingly
of his love for his blind and disabled son, who he and his wife chose to
bear after his wife contacted rubella in her eighth week of pregnancy. But
Stassen fails to mention that he was one of the original signatories of “A
Call to Concern,” a 1977 document that expressed support for the Roe v. Wade
decision and affirmed that “abortion in some instances may be the most
loving act possible.” If his view has changed, or if he sees this original
stance as somehow compatible with his current “consistent pro-life
position,” he does not say.
One may also get the impression that Stassen had previously supported the
president, but this is not the case. Stassen, for example, signed an August
30, 2004 advertisement that appeared in the New York Times on the eve of the
GOP convention challenging the view that Christians should support Bush. The
striking similarity of Stassen’s rhetoric (“Not since Hoover has there been
a net loss of jobs during a presidency,” etc.) to that of the Kerry campaign
also raises questions about whether there was a predetermined outcome to
this “investigation” of abortion trends.
The data Stassen has trotted out, however, do not support his conclusion. At
this point, it is too early to determine a clear trend telling us whether
abortions have increased or decreased during the Bush administration.
Neither is it clear that Bush’s policies were responsible for the economic
downturn experienced in 2001 and 2002. Does this mean that Bush can now
count on Stassen’s vote?