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a publication of BC's Pro-Choice Action Network
Autumn 1999 Issue
Table of Contents
BC / Canadian News
U.S. /International News:
Demise of the Anti-Choice?
by Joyce Arthur
Canada's anti-choice movement has shown signs of major weakness in the last year.
This summer, two of Canada's three national anti-choice groups were forced to shut down! According to Catholic Insight, an ultra-right monthly magazine, Human Life International (HLI) closed its Ottawa doors in July, and Alliance for Life folded in June. Citing loss of revenue, HLI laid off its staff after losing its charitable status. Revenue Canada judged that HLI's work was more political in nature than charitable. Alliance for Life (AFL), based in Winnipeg, was an umbrella group that housed a network of over 100 smaller Canadian anti-choice groups. In addition to also having its charitable status revoked by Revenue Canada, AFL had been plagued by internal power struggles for the last year. Efforts by Canada's anti-choice leaders to save the group failed. Catholic Insight described the closure of AFL as a "disquieting blow to pro-life work in Canada." (Since HLI and AFL are both political groups, we must question how they initially got their charitable status. In the next issue of Pro-Choice Press, we will investigate this issue, and also try to determine how much undeserved funding they received over the years by exploiting their false charitable status.)
Secondly, one of the anti-choice movement's most significant mobilizing efforts, their annual Life Chain, drew an all-time low attendance this year, not only in Vancouver, but in other Canadian cities as well. Only 3,400 people took part in the chain this year in Vancouver, down from a high of 15,000 in the early 1990's. Virtually every year since the Life Chain began has seen a continuing decline in attendance. A recent story in the BC Catholic stated that organizers were thinking of scrapping the event as it now exists.
Thirdly, the growing violence against providers over the last few years has caused a severe decline in public credibility for the anti-choice. After the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian last October, many mainstream press outlets began to paint the entire anti-choice movement with an extremist brush. Differing opinions within the movement as to the desirability of the violence has created divisiveness and further reduced public credibility. While many anti-choice groups condemn the violence, most do so in a back-handed, hypocritical way, by condemning the killers of the "baby-killers," so to speak. But the public now tends to associate the anti-choice movement with violence, and believes that their violent rhetoric helps cause the violence. In addition, the media has effectively revealed the hypocrisy of self-described "peaceful" groups like Campaign Life Coalition, which has worked closely with an American anti-choice group that espouses violence (Missionaries to the Preborn), while at the same time feigning ignorance of the Missionaries' real agenda.
The tide is also turning against the anti-choice movement in America. Even though the movement is stronger and has more public support in the U.S., its leaders recently suffered a crushing defeat with a recent nation-wide injunction that prohibits them from protesting at clinics (see full story).
If the movement wants to survive, it will have to abandon its traditional mainstay of harassing providers, patients, and clinics. Unfortunately for everyone, it is probably too late to turn back the clock. The mainstream movement's initial mistake of fostering extremism in its midst has resulted in a loss of control over the movement's dangerous direction. Now, instead of taking responsibility for the violence and working hard to combat it (a tactic which would have earned them public respect), the anti-choice have further marginalized themselves by pretending the violence has nothing to do with them, while continuing to provide moral and organizational support to advocates of violence.
"Genocide Awareness Project" Stopped by UBC
A radical anti-choice group from California was prevented by the University of BC in September from displaying grotesque images of aborted fetuses juxtaposed with Jewish holocaust victims and black lynching victims. The objective of the display, called the Genocide Awareness Project (GAP), was to label abortion as genocide. The group responsible for the display, the Center for Bio-ethical Reform (CBR), is an organization of anti-choice lawyers who were invited by UBC's anti-choice student group, the AMS Lifeline Club.
The GAP display has been to nine universities across the United States, and UBC was the group's first attempt to establish a presence in Canada. UBC cited safety and security concerns as reasons to impose a number of conditions upon the group's presence, including payment of $10,000 a day in security costs, which CBR called outrageous and refused to pay.
GAP's Shocking Pictures
The GAP display consists of 6' by 14' billboards set up in a large circle with GAP staff standing inside the circle with a barricade to separate them from protestors. Each billboard is a panel of two or three pictures. For example, one billboard reads: "The changing face of choice" and the first panel shows the bodies of Holocaust victims and the Nazi swastika with the caption "Religious Choice." The second panel shows a lynched black man with the caption "Racial Choice" and the third panel shows an aborted fetus with the caption "Reproductive Choice". One billboard directly compares Planned Parenthood to Nazis.
Stephanie Gray, head of the AMS Lifeline Club at UBC, the group that invited GAP, defended the use of genocide pictures and aborted fetus pictures, saying in the Vancouver Sun, "...we have the right to show them, because they're the truth." Gray also used this argument in the BC Catholic, where she said, "While graphic pictures are emotional, we mustn't forget that they are TRUE." There are two major problems with this premise.
First, just because something is true (like the horrors of the Holocaust) doesn't mean that it must therefore be presented graphically in public. For example, it's true that child pornography is made and distributed, but that doesn't mean it's OK to protest against it by displaying large photos of child porn. And it's a safe bet that CBR staff themselves would never tolerate protesters standing outside their offices with large, TRUE pictures of, say, dead women lying in a pool of their own blood from botched, illegal abortions. Second, many aborted fetus pictures are NOT true---they are distorted misrepresentations or outright lies. Most show late-term abortions, which are rare and unrepresentative of abortion. Also, most of these pictures cannot be authenticated and are of dubious origin. A recent book (Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, by Cynthia Gorney, 1998) has documented that many aborted fetus pictures used by anti-choice groups have been carefully staged by clever anti-choice photographers using stolen body parts. Some may actually depict natural miscarriages or stillbirths, and others are so old that they date back to the days when abortion was illegal. It is ironic indeed that the anti-choice want a return to the very thing that their pictures are supposed to be protesting!
GAP's Real Agenda
GAP purports to be an educational forum, but the display is not meant to foster debate; rather, it's designed to shock, horrify, and brainwash through a twisted psychological game. GAP exploits the real oppression of many different peoples for its own agenda. Comparing other peoples' suffering to the life-saving blessing of legal abortion is an insult to the real victims of genocide, including the 70,000 plus women who die every year from illegal abortion. According to Erin Kaiser of UBC Students for Choice, equating abortion with genocide puts women on the same moral level as Nazis, the KKK, and other groups that commit atrocities and genocide. "GAP's actions are inciting hatred against women and it's absolutely disgusting," said Kaiser. "It's no different than putting up posters implying that blacks are like apes."
CBR's exploitation of the Jewish Holocaust and black lynchings is a calculated attempt to aggravate and provoke Jewish and black students. In fact, CBR deliberately organizes their campus appearances to coincide with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At the University of Kansas, an African-American male was so enraged by the display that he rammed his truck through it. Another student vandalized the display and tried to attack a GAP staff member. CBR's executive director Gregg Cunningham has never made any apology for the comparison between abortion and the Holocaust. In a media statement last year, Cunningham said: "Frankly, I'm weary of genocide snobs who focus solely on their causes."
In response to any violence brought on by their shockingly insensitive and racist presentation, CBR ruthlessly presses charges against students and sues the university. They also feed off the negative publicity, trying to wipe the stench off themselves by pointing fingers of blame at "violent" pro-choicers, and condemning anyone who is reluctant to allow them their "freedom of speech rights."
It is ominous that CBR staff who work at the GAP display routinely photograph and videotape pro-choice opponents. We can only wonder if they are actively identifying the pro-choice movement and its leaders, and sharing this information with other anti-choice groups who may espouse violence.
What Happened at UBC?
In their dealings with UBC, CBR's behaviour can only be described as aggressive, threatening, callous, and extremely arrogant. They began by writing a letter, then meeting with UBC lawyers, demanding free access to the university. They insisted on their freedom of speech rights by brandishing the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms like a club. They announced unilaterally where they were going to set up their display, when, and for how long. And to protect their own staff from angry students, they ordered UBC to provide them with free campus security.
Justifiably concerned about GAP's track record of inciting confrontation and violence wherever they went, and offended by their belligerent manner, UBC imposed certain reasonable conditions on GAP's presence, in the interests of public safety. GAP organizers could set up in McInnes Field, but not on the main plaza outside of the Student Union Building because students would not be able to avoid the display there. They had to keep their display away from areas where children might be exposed to it. They must put up appropriate warning signs along traffic paths to the display. They could stay for two days, not four days, so as to minimize disruptions to university operations and students' classroom activities. And they had to pay for their extraordinary use of UBC's security---$10,000 a day, plus a $5,000 damage deposit.
UBC also refuted CBR's claim that they had a constitutional right to be on university property, explaining that the University Act gives UBC the power to manage, administer, and control its property, including the right to terminate a licence to occupy. (The university is private property, owned outright by UBC.) "We're not trying to keep them off campus," explained UBC vice-president Brian Sullivan. "This is not an issue of freedom of expression. It's a concern around safety." He noted that UBC was charging the actual cost of security, as they routinely do for any other event held by a non-student group.
What was CBR's response to these conditions? An intimidating "F--- you"-type message left on an answering machine that flatly stated that GAP was coming onto campus, and they had no intention of obeying any of the restrictions. They would go wherever they wanted, stay as long as they wanted, and do whatever they wanted. As for any possible trouble that the incendiary GAP display might provoke, the executive director of CBR, Gregg Cunningham was quoted in the Ubyssey (UBC's student newspaper) as saying, "We will make an example out of lawbreakers."
Now angered at CBR's confrontational and uncompromising attitude, and alarmed by the growing threat to public safety (which CBR absolutely refused to mitigate), UBC was forced to quickly apply for an injunction to keep GAP off campus. UBC had learned that some students (not members of UBC Students for Choice) were so upset with CBR's irresponsible behaviour and the coming GAP display that they reportedly planned to overturn cars, throw paint on the fetus photos, and burn the American flag.
At the last minute, realizing they were going to lose out to the injunction, CBR decided to delay their visit to UBC until they could re-negotiate UBC's conditions. At the same time, Cunningham threatened to launch a lawsuit against UBC, on the grounds that UBC had violated CBR's freedom of speech rights by demanding unreasonable security fees. Despite the strong opposition on campus, Cunningham says he will do whatever is necessary to force the large fetus photos down the throats of UBC students. "These images will be shown on this campus," he vowed.
In the meantime, UBC Students for Choice had organized a peaceful rally to demonstrate against GAP, as well as an information fair. The rally went ahead on Sept. 29 at noon outside the Student Union Building, without the presence of GAP. It was attended by 500 to 600 students and local pro-choice and anti-choice activists, plus CBR's Gregg Cunningham. Speakers included Medical Students for Choice, the Pro-Choice Action Network, Democracy Street, and MLA Joy MacPhail, among others. Many of the speeches focused on the connection between anti-choice groups and violence, highlighting their associations with white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups, and their reliance on hypocrisy, lies, hatred, and intolerance.
In spite of their failure to set up their display, CBR was able to host an indoor meeting at UBC the evening of the pro-choice rally. Although billed as a "debate," no pro-choice advocate spoke. In fact, CBR generally has great difficulty finding pro-choicers willing to debate with them, because most pro-choicers rightly refuse to publicly debate someone who advocates biological slavery for women. Their forum was disrupted by pro-choice protesters who hung coat hangers on Cunningham's microphone and pulled the fire alarm.
Throughout the UBC debacle, Cunningham and his GAP organizers (all of them fundamentalist Christians) never showed the slightest concern for the safety or sensibilities of students or for the possible trauma that children could suffer if they saw the display. They were perfect models for a fascist autocracy, never having heard of the words compromise, tolerance, or goodwill. Their only selfish interest throughout was protecting their "freedom of speech rights" at any cost. Of course, freedom of speech is never absolute. In Canada, it can be justifiably restricted to protect public safety and vulnerable groups. Canada also has hate crime laws to protect minorities like Jews and blacks, and anti-discrimination laws that protect women as well as minorities.
CBR's complete indifference to the rights of students and children, their deliberate incitement of student violence on campuses, their callous exploitation of blacks and Jews, their blatant misogyny, and their underhanded encouragement of hatred and violence against abortion providers, make it safe to say that CBR doesn't give a damn about "unborn babies"---they are intent only on a vicious, hateful crusade against the pro-choice community.
Anti-Choice Doctors Bully Women
In Alberta, patients have accused a group of anti-choice doctors of bullying Alberta women who want abortions. Dr. Ted Bushekin of Calgary's Kensington clinic said it's common for anti-choice doctors to use all sorts of tactics to prevent a woman from having an abortion. These include not telling them where to go for help, or using delaying tactics, such as making them wait four weeks for an ultrasound. This often results in late-term abortions, which carry a higher medical risk for women. Dr. Busheikin also noted that some anti-choice doctors are "downright rude or offensive."
Often, anti-choice doctors will refer patients to an anti-abortion counselling agency or "clinic." Such organizations provide inaccurate information about abortion, and refuse to make referrals for abortions. They also may refuse to give the patient her lab results so she can take them to another doctor.
The Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons is advising doctors to provide pregnant women with information to enable them to make an informed decision on all options, including abortion. The college has the power to lift the licence of any doctor in Alberta. However, the College registrar feels that any complaints can be resolved with education rather than a disciplinary hearing. Unfortunately, it is more likely that doctors who consider abortion to be "murder" are not going to mention it to their patients, regardless of any "education". But as the Executive Director of Planned Parenthood in Alberta pointed out, doctors have an ethical responsibility to provide appropriate care, whatever their personal convictions.
Our position is that abortion is an essential medical service to which women have a fundamental right. Denying them access to it in a timely manner amounts to a violation of their civil rights. A doctor who provides false information to a woman seeking abortion, or who puts a woman's health at risk by unnecessarily delaying an abortion should be sued for malpractice.
Task Force Alerts Providers
The joint Canadian-American Task Force on Abortion Doctor Shootings has warned health-care providers across North America to be alert to the possibility of another sniper attack as Remembrance Day approaches. Last year, on Oct. 23, Dr. Barnett Slepian of Amherst, New York was shot dead in his home by a gunman hiding in his backyard. Four other abortion providers have been wounded in previous attacks, with Dr. Garson Romalis of Vancouver as the first target in November, 1994. Other targets were Dr. Hugh Short of Hamilton (1995), Dr. Jack Fainman of Winnipeg (1997), and an unnamed New York State doctor (1997). All were shot by a high-powered rifle through a window in the rear of their homes, on or about Remembrance Day. In 1996, the only year in which there was no shooting, the Morgentaler clinic in Edmonton suffered a butyric acid attack on November 12.
An American anti-abortion terrorist, James Kopp, has been charged with Slepian's killing and is the prime suspect in all the other shootings. Unfortunately, Kopp remains at large. The Task Force believes an underground network of anti-abortionists is hiding Kopp, and that he also may have had help in the commission of his crimes, which were carried out in a planned, professional manner. Task Force member Insp. Keith McCaskill of the Winnipeg police has appealed for help from anyone who may be protecting the prime suspect in the case. "The person responsible is going to get caught," McCaskill said. "We're not going to stop until we do catch that person."
The Canadian reward for Kopp's capture and conviction currently stands at $547,000. The American reward is an additional $500,000 U.S.
BC's Bubble Zone Law Upheld
BC's bubble zone law, the Access to Abortion Services Act, was upheld once again in August by BC's Court of Appeal. Anti-abortion protester Jim Demers had appealed his conviction under the Act for violating the zone outside of Everywoman's Health Centre in December 1996. The Act bans protesters from designated areas surrounding abortion clinics, hospitals, and doctors' offices and homes.
Part of the bubble zone law had been struck down in early 1996, on the grounds that it violated constitutional freedom of speech rights. A subsequent appeal fully restored the Act, with the appeal judge stating that some restrictions on freedom of speech were justified to protect a vulnerable group, women seeking abortions.
However, Demers' case did not rest on any alleged restriction on his freedom of speech, but was based on pleading for a right-to-life for the unborn under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 7 of the Charter reads "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice." Demers claimed that the word "everyone" includes fetuses.
Justice Sherman Hood completely rejected Demers' lawyers' arguments, which he called "repetitive, lengthy," and frequently "not relevant" to the issue of deciding whether the fetus is a legal person with rights. Hood referred back to numerous other Canadian court cases, which had already decided that the fetus has no right to life and no legal protection as a person. Some of these cases include: Morgentaler (1988), Borowski v. Attorney General of Canada (1987), Tremblay v. Daigle (1989), and Winnipeg Child and Family Services v. Ms G. (1997). (The recent Dobson case in New Brunswick is another example.) The judge also ruled that common law and international law do not support a right-to-life for fetuses.
However, Judge Hood remarked, without stating any reasons: "It is obvious that this case is going to go to the Court of Appeal, and then on to the Supreme Court of Canada, regardless of the decision in this Court. The sooner the better, in my opinion, for all concerned and interested."
It is difficult to understand why Judge Hood is encouraging an appeal of this case to the Supreme Court, and it is even more difficult to comprehend why the anti-choice would even bother. Canadian case law against fetal rights is strongly established, and the courts have repeatedly stated that it is up to the legislature, not the courts, to decide the issue of fetal personhood based on broader social, political, moral, and economic reasons. (The federal Liberal government has no plans to introduce legislation on abortion.)
In the days and weeks after Demers lost his appeal, protest levels increased at Vancouver's abortion clinics. Also, two days after the decision, Demers showed up in Victoria to protest outside of an abortion provider's office. Demers is a former Operation Rescue leader who has been arrested at least 10 times for blockading clinics in BC and Alberta. He was once convicted of destroying a vacuum aspirator at a BC hospital.
Mifepristone Not Coming to Canada?
The abortion pill mifepristone (formerly RU-486) is scheduled for possible release in the United States as early as February 2000, but the pill may not be coming to Canada, at least not right away.
The mainstream press had reported in August that Canada would receive mifepristone shortly after it arrived in the States. Initially, about a year ago, Catherine Euvrard (a spokesperson for Exelgyn, the pill’s marketers) had said they would not market the pill in Canada because "you kill people who do abortions." Exelgyn is a private French company owned by one of the inventors of mifepristone.
But when another manufacturer announced it would release the pill in the U.S., Euvrard stated in August: "As soon as it is launched in the U.S. market, we will apply for registration [in Canada], but not before." However, it is unclear when, if ever, the pill will reach Canada, because Exelgyn appears to be worried about an anti-choice backlash. It’s possible they will wait to find out the reaction to the pill’s release in the United States before bringing it to Canada. If so, this could take time, perhaps a year or more. Women's groups in Canada have already lobbied for more than 10 years to get the drug released here. Its arrival has been continually delayed by anti-choice politics.
As an early abortion method, mifepristone would be an important additional choice for Canadian women. It can be used up to about nine weeks gestation, and is about 95% effective. Mifepristone has been extensively tested and is very safe. Side effects are minor, and may include bleeding, stomach cramps, and nausea. A woman seeking to terminate a pregnancy takes three mifepristone pills, which block the hormone progesterone, required by the fertilized egg to survive. A few days later, she inserts a prostaglandin called misoprostol into her vagina, which brings on contractions of the uterus causing a miscarriage within four to 24 hours.
The abortion services community believes that the availability of mifepristone will encourage more doctors to provide abortions in the privacy of their offices, thereby taking some of the pressure off of doctors currently performing surgical abortions, and making it harder for the anti-choice to target doctors with harassment and violence. Fewer than 5% of doctors now do abortions, but as many as 35% say they would be interested in prescribing mifepristone.
Mifepristone is currently available in France, Sweden, Britain, and China. However, Exelgyn, which holds world rights to the drug, has now registered with health authorities in Switzerland and Russia, as well as eight more European Union countries, including Spain and Germany. The company expects to begin shipping the drug in December.
Hospital Must Release Abortion Statistics to Anti-Choice
In August, Vancouver General Hospital was ordered to release its abortion statistics for the years 1997 and 1998 to Ted Gerk, a Kelowna anti-choice activist. The decision was the very first order made by BC's new Information and Privacy Commissioner, David Loukidelis. VGH has decided not to appeal the decision.
VGH had refused Gerk's request for information on the grounds that release of the statistics could lead to a safety risk for patients and staff at the hospital. VGH cited the fact that released information is shared indiscriminately with other anti-choice groups and published on anti-choice websites. The Commissioner was not persuaded by VGH's argument, noting that statistics do not identify patients or abortion providers and that VGH had failed to provide sufficient proof that release of the statistics could cause harm.
Gerk has made similar Freedom of Information requests at other BC hospitals and has encountered no difficulty. Gerk has been using the information in his crusade to publicize late-term abortions in BC.
Injunction Granted Against Anti-Abortion Terrorists
The National Organization of Women (NOW) celebrated an important victory in July when a federal U.S. District court issued a permanent, nation-wide injunction against perpetrators of anti-abortion violence under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (the RICO Act). Defendants in the case included Operation Rescue, the Pro-Life Action Network, and Joseph Scheidler and his Pro-Life Action League. Scheidler is probably the most influential anti-choice leader in the United States, and is author of the book Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion.
"Having proven what the judge described as 'numerous, repeated acts of racketeering' by the defendant, NOW got the remedy we need to protect access to women's health clinics," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "While protecting the defendants' rights to pray, speak, or leaflet peacefully on public property, the judge enjoined the [defendants] from interfering with the right of women to obtain [clinic] services, including abortions."
The injunction was a follow-up to an earlier decision against the defendants. In May 1998, a jury had returned a unanimous verdict that called the defendants racketeers under the RICO Act. This made the convicted parties liable for triple damages for all of the harm their acts had caused to clinics. The defendants had organized aggressive and violent blockades of clinics, sometimes assaulting patients. The suit was first filed in 1985 after anti-abortion protestors trained by Scheidler invaded a Pensacola clinic, causing extensive damage and injuring the clinic administrator and an officer of the local NOW chapter.
During the court case, dozens of patients and staff from clinics across the country described the impact of the intimidation and extortion on their lives and their communities. Women who had been prevented from entering clinics testified anonymously, each as "Jane Doe." One woman described the forcible blockade that prevented her from reaching her doctor for a post-operative appointment. She was a cancer survivor who'd had surgery to try to preserve her reproductive organs. Her sutures were ruptured when she was hit on the head with an Operation Rescue sign and she fainted in the parking lot. Another Jane Doe left several jurors in tears after she told of her own trauma and that of the 14-year-old rape victim she comforted as they struggled for days to cross violent blockades.
The injunction will help ensure access for women across the country, especially in areas where local injunctions were poorly enforced.
Link Found Between Legal Abortion and Decreased Crime
In a recent study (Donohue & Levitt, 1999), two American scholars have reached a provocative conclusion, that the legalization of abortion in 1973 accounts for up to one half of the decline in the U.S. crime rate during the 1990s.
Steven Levitt, a University of Chicago economist, and John Donohue III, a Stanford University Law School professor, conducted research to discover the forces responsible for the rapid and steady fall of crime in the 1990s -- 30-40% since 1991. Reasons for the crime decrease have been intensely debated. Possible explanations include the increasing use of prisons, more police, the growing use of security guards and alarms, improved policing strategies, declines in crack cocaine trade, and the strong economy. But Levitt and Donohue say these explanations are not sufficient to explain the large, widespread, and persistent drop in crime over the last five years especially. For example, the trends towards increased use of prisons, police, and security measures have been ongoing for over two decades, so they cannot plausibly explain the recent abrupt decrease in crime. Improvements in policing techniques cannot explain it either, since crime went down even in cities where policing techniques changed little. Similarly, many areas of the country have never had a crack cocaine problem, but have nevertheless experienced decreases in crime. Finally, previous research has established only a weak link between a country's economic performance and violent crime.
Since abortion was legalized in 1973 in the United States, more than 34 million legal abortions have been performed there. Donohue said, "I was just stunned at the magnitude of the abortions relative to births. It's such a huge number that it has to have had some big impact somewhere."
The theoretical justification for the argument that legalized abortion has contributed to the decrease in crime rests on two simple assumptions: legalized abortion leads to fewer unwanted babies being born, and unwanted babies are more likely to suffer abuse and neglect and therefore be at an increased risk for criminal involvement later in life. (The peak ages for committing crimes are roughly 18-24.)
The first assumption, that abortion reduces the number of unwanted children, is true virtually by definition. The second assumption, that unwanted children are at increased risk for criminal involvement, is supported by three decades of academic research. Studies conducted in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia found that children born after their mothers were denied abortion were substantially more likely to be involved in crime and have poorer life prospects, even when researchers took into account other influences such as the race, income, age, education, and health of the mother. It has also been shown that unintended pregnancies are associated with poorer prenatal care, lower birthweights, and more smoking and drinking during pregnancy (leading to fetal alcohol syndrome). In two recent studies (Brennan, 1999 and Rasanen, 1999), smoking during pregnancy has been shown to double the risk of criminal activity by male children starting in adolescence.
These two assumptions, then, establish a direct mechanism by which the legalization of abortion can reduce crime. And the impact is probably large---according to the study's estimates, as much as one-half of the remarkable decline in crime in the 1990s may be attributable to the legalization of abortion. Levitt and Donuhue admit their results are somewhat speculative, since it's very difficult to separate out other social factors that might also have an effect on crime rates. However, they strongly feel that no other factor plausibly explains the decrease in crime as well as legal abortion does.
Although their conclusion that legal abortion is linked to a decrease in crime was hailed as original and unique, Levitt and Donohue are not the first to posit this relationship. Canada's foremost abortion doctor, Dr. Henry Morgentaler, has been championing this theory for many years, although without the benefit of hard evidence. Abortion was legalized in Canada in 1969, four years before Roe vs. Wade, and Canada has also experienced similar drops in crime rates.
Levitt's and Donohue's conclusions are based on four separate lines of evidence:
- Crime rates began to fall exactly 18 years after the landmark Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion across the U.S., just the point at which babies born under legalized abortion would be reaching their peak adolescent crime years.
- Five states that legalized abortion in 1970, three years before Roe vs. Wade, saw crime begin to decrease three years earlier than the rest of the nation.
- States with high abortion rates in the mid-1970s have had much greater crime decreases in the 1990s than states with low 1970s abortion rates, even when other factors are taken into account, such as changes in the size of prison populations, number of police, poverty rates, etc.
- The abortion-related drop in crime is occurring only for those who today are under the age of 25. This is exactly the age group that would be affected by the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s.
The media promptly attacked Levitt's and Donohue's research, pointing out the potential dangers of the research being used to justify racist eugenics. Although white women obtain 60% of abortions in the U.S., black women are three times more likely to have an abortion than white women, and Hispanic women are twice as likely to do so. Other groups of women, such as those who are unmarried or under age 25, are more than twice as likely to have abortions as the overall population. Anti-choice groups condemned the "selective" abortion of poor, black, and Hispanic babies as a form of "pre-emptive capital punishment"---innocent people being tried, convicted, and executed before they even have a chance to do anything wrong. A typical hysterical reaction was expressed by one newspaper columnist, Carl Rowan, who said, "If abortion rights work as a great anti-crime force, then why not force abortion or sterilization on all the abject poor, woefully uneducated, and racially suspect women of America?" Others worried about the endorsement of abortion as a moral good and a benefit to society. But according to Cory Richards of the abortion-research agency, The Alan Guttmacher Institute, "This is not an argument for abortion per se. This is an argument for women not being forced to have children they don't want to have. This is making the point that it's not only bad for the women, but for children and society."
In reality, higher abortion rates for black and Hispanic women are a direct reflection of the systemic social and political discrimination faced by ethnic minorities in the U.S. Black and Hispanic women are coming to abortion clinics---by their own choice---because their lives tend to be more disadvantaged than those of white women, making it more difficult for them to avoid unwanted pregnancy. So racism and poverty are the grave social problems that must be addressed, not abortion, which is a completely separate issue. In fact, the link between abortion and decreasing crime has to do with unwantedness. As Donohue said, "I don't think it is a racial story. I think it's much more about people who are born under very unfortunate circumstances who will suffer a lot more, and I think neglect, abuse, and the attendant anger that occurs because of that can really be a stimulus to crime."
To combat the media distortions of their study, Levitt wrote a response that says in part: "It has been both fascinating and disturbing to me how the media have insisted on reporting this as a study about race, when race really is not an integral part of the story. The link between abortion and unwantedness, and also between unwantedness and later criminality, have been shown most clearly in Scandinavian data. Abortion rates among African-Americans are higher, but overall, far more abortions are done by whites. None of our analysis is race-based because the crime data by race is generally not deemed reliable."
Levitt also pointed out that the study did not judge the morality or possible social benefits of abortion; nor did it suggest that the government should restrict any woman's right to bear children. "I think the crux of the misinterpretation of our study is that critics of our work fail to see the distinction between identifying a relationship between social phenomena and endorsing such a relationship," said Levitt. The study simply documented the close correlation between the decreasing crime rate and legalized abortion, and provided plausible evidence that the two are causally linked. Just because some people are uncomfortable with that conclusion, or don't like its implications, does not affect whether it's true or not.
The media condemnation of Levitt's and Donohue's study is based on a negative view of abortion as wrong, or at least undesirable, but most pro-choice advocates agree that abortion can often be a highly moral act that benefits women, children, and society. When women can choose to have children when they are ready and able to care for them, everyone wins. Decreased crime due to legalized abortion is a confirmation of this viewpoint, and should therefore be welcomed as a positive side effect of women exercising the right to control their bodies and their lives.
Donohue, John J., and Steven D. Levitt. Legalized Abortion and Crime. JCPR Working Paper, Aug. 1999, #1, http://www.jcpr.org/levitt.html
Brennan, Patricia, et al. Maternal Smoking During Pregnancy and Adult Male Criminal Outcomes. Archives of General Psychiatry. 56:215-19. 1999.
Rasanen, Pijkko, et al. Maternal Smoking During Pregnancy and Risk of Criminal Behaviour Among Adult Male Offspring in the Northern Finland 1966 Birth Cohort. American Journal of Psychiatry. 156:857-862, 1999.
New Contraceptive Coming
Clinical trials are nearly complete for the first contraceptive patch for women, called Evra. The manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, plans to seek FDA approval in the United States, which will likely take a year. Presumably, Evra will also come to Canada once it is available in the United States.
Evra contains the same ingredients as oral contraceptives, but is a small patch that is applied once per week on the arm, abdomen, or buttocks. The method is just as effective as the birth control pill, but reportedly has fewer side effects. Its biggest advantage is eliminating the common problem of remembering to take a pill every day. Currently, over 10 million American women rely on the pill, making it the most common form of contraception after sterilization. (In Canada, sterilization is the most popular form of contraception.)
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