In America and possibly elsewhere, a debate is raging about the ethics and legality of abortion, a debate which may well be echoed here. In America, the law determining the legality of abortions throughout the country was set in 1973 by the famous Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision, which decided, by a seven-to-two verdict, that women have a constitutional right to the termination of their pregnancy during the first trimester, but that the states may legally restrict this right in the latter stages of pregnancy. Since 1973, abortion has also become legal in all Australian states, although with differing rules. It is also legal, and widely practised, throughout the Western world and in much of the Third World.
Although legal abortion is a major fact of social life throughout the Western world and beyond, its long-term effects have received much less attention. Through looking primarily at the situation in America and then turning to Australia, my aim is to set out these long-term effects—three in particular. First, in my view the demographic consequences of abortion have been far more significant than most people realise. Second, by one of the greatest ironies in history of the unintended consequences of a major change in policy, legalised abortions have had great eugenic consequences. Third and most controversially, the eugenic effects of legal abortion have, again in my view, been wholly beneficial to American society.
This essay appears in the current Quadrant.
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Since my third point is bound to be misunderstood, my own attitude towards this controversial subject ought to be made clear. I had no real interest in the demographic consequences of abortion before the recent American debate arose, and I have never written anything about the subject. I have never been a member of any group concerned with abortion, pro or anti. In so far as I have had any views on the subject, I have to say that abortions have always made me very uneasy, and I would say that I definitely oppose any termination of pregnancy where the foetus is viable. The aim of this article is not to advocate what the laws on abortion ought to be, but what the societal consequences of abortion have actually been.
The demographic effects of legalised abortions on American society have been extraordinarily great, a fact which remains little known, in part, perhaps, because neither the pro-abortion lobby nor the mainstream media gives it widespread publicity. Since the Roe v Wade decision there have been about 60 million legal abortions in the United States, approximately the same number as the entire population of Great Britain. The number of legal abortions carried out each year in the United States is astronomical: 881,000 in 2017, the most recent year for which figures are available, about 20 per cent of all pregnancies. Even these figures understate the actual demographic consequences of legalised abortion, since they take no account of the children (and grandchildren) of the terminated who would have been born and had children had these abortions not occurred. In all likelihood, in the absence of legalised abortion, the total population of the United States would now be about 100 million greater than it is. This figure dwarfs the total number—about 44 million—of legal immigrants allowed to settle in the United States since 1973, and has arguably been the most important single factor in population change in the United States.
Second, these abortions have not been carried out randomly across the whole female population of the United States. Terminations take place disproportionately among America’s black, Hispanic and poor white populations, and in particular among blacks. About 30 to 33 per cent of all abortions in the United States occur among African-Americans, who comprise 13 per cent of the total population. It is believed that, in all, about 19 million abortions have been carried out on black women since 1973. The total black population of the United States is about 40 million. Including the children and grandchildren of these 19 million who were never born, it is reasonable to assume that, without legalised abortions, America’s black population would be in the order of 70 million or even more. In some cities, the statistics for black abortions are even greater than the national average. In New York City, the number of abortions carried out on black women (about 23,400 in 2016) actually exceeded the number of live births (about 22,400 in 2016) to black women. Between 2012 and 2106, black women in New York City produced 118,127 live births, but terminated 136,426 pregnancies. In Georgia, while about 32 per cent of the total population is black, 62 per cent of abortions are carried out on black women.
Unmarried women comprise the great majority of those terminating pregnancies—about 86 per cent—with women married and in conventional households constituting only a very small minority. It is also interesting to note that despite the fact that the Catholic Church is renowned for its staunch opposition to abortion, about 24 per cent of abortions in America are carried out on Catholic women, exactly the same figure as the overall percentage of Catholics in the American population.
Given the notoriously high costs of medical care of any kind in the United States and, in particular, the spottiness of adequate medical care among the poor and ethnic minorities, it may well seem strange that blacks, especially those in big cities, who are usually perceived as synonymous with disadvantage and poverty, should undergo abortions, a serious medical procedure, at a higher rate than whites. The reason for this unexpected fact, it has been argued, is that Planned Parenthood, the major body in the United States facilitating abortions, has deliberately sited its clinics, where abortions are carried out at little or no cost, in or near black neighbourhoods, and receives an enormous budget from government and private sources—estimated at $1.3 billion in 2014—to fund terminations for poor blacks. This point has often been made by black anti-abortion activists, one of whom said that “abortions have done more to get rid of generations [of blacks] and cripple others than all the years of slavery and lynching”. Most black leaders in America, however, strongly support the ready availability of abortion for poor black women.
More abortions are carried out on white women than on blacks. Despite this, far less research has been undertaken on terminations among white women. While the plurality of white abortions are probably carried out on poor whites, it seems likely that most occur after “one night stands”, often among high school or university students or women just entering the workforce. It might also be pointed out that it is commonly believed that up to 90 per cent of foetuses in the United States found to show symptoms of Down syndrome are aborted, a figure that is apparently similar throughout the developed world.
The consequences of the fact that abortion has been legal in America for forty-six years have been profound. In particular, they arguably constitute the greatest experiment in positive eugenics in history, at least in a democratic country. The term “eugenics” derives from the Greek for “well-born” and “race”, and, since it was first proposed in the nineteenth century, the term has meant the advocacy of policies aimed at deliberately improving a population’s desirable characteristics while eliminating its undesirable and negative ones, by such means as mandatory sterilisation of the “unfit”, criminals and the insane, bounties paid to the intelligent to marry and produce children, and the encouragement of the poor and uneducated to emigrate. (The term was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton, the polymath English statistician and sociologist.) A major element in pre-1939 programs of eugenics was their necessity for compulsion and direction by the state. A widespread international movement to enact measures of eugenics grew up in the early twentieth century, and was probably more often associated at this stage with the Left, such as many Fabian socialists in England, than with the far Right. At its heart was the fear that the “lower” and “unfit” races and groups were out-breeding the civilised and intelligent.
The entire eugenics movement was, of course, comprehensively discredited, probably forever, by the experience of Nazi Germany, whose policies of genocide and mass murder in the interests of the “master race” were paralleled by the T4 program in Germany itself, in which up to 400,000 mentally and physically handicapped persons were deliberately killed between September 1939 and the end of the Second World War. Today, it would be impossible for anyone in the mainstream seriously to advocate any eugenics-oriented policies which entailed state-directed killings, sterilisation or mandatory abortions, especially policies based on the alleged superiority of an ethnic group or nation. Most conservatives as well as leftists would strongly oppose the use of state power to enforce such policies.
Hence there is an extraordinary irony at the heart of abortion-on-demand in the United States. This policy has resulted in astronomical and unprecedented numbers of terminations. However, these have been carried out not by state power and enforced diktat, but purely by the voluntary choices of the women themselves. Yet nonetheless the result of this policy has been to produce far-reaching eugenicist outcomes, in many respects similar to what the advocates of this movement would have demanded 120 years ago, which they often wished to be carried out by mandatory state direction. It has been precisely the poor, the unmarried, the non-white, and those from dysfunctional, low-life families and backgrounds who have voluntarily secured abortions in record numbers in the United States.
The effects of mass voluntary abortions upon American society during the past forty-six years have been far-reaching; but they have also arguably been profoundly beneficial. Since peaking in the early 1990s, rates of violent crime in the United States, always much higher than in other advanced industrial countries, have declined steadily. In 2001 two sociologists, John Donahue and Steven Levitt, suggested that the decline in violent crime in America was strongly correlated with the increase in abortions, their theory arguing that it was pregnant women from dysfunctional and impoverished backgrounds, disproportionately unmarried and black, who had the highest rate of abortions, and whose offspring were much more likely to become gang members and turn to violent crime; the decline in America’s violent crime rate, they stated, began roughly twenty years after the Roe v Wade decision. Their theory strikes me as unquestionably valid, although it omits other factors which led to the decline in violent crime, from better policing to longer prison sentences to economic growth.
Some of the statistics of the decline in violent crime are virtually unbelievable. In New York City (population 8.6 million), for example, the number of murders dropped from 1927 in 1993 to 649 in 2001 to only 295 in 2018, a decline of 85 per cent; the present murder rate in New York is only slightly higher than in many European cities. Other violent crimes have also declined drastically in this period, with, for instance, burglaries dropping by 88 per cent. As a result of this decline, entire neighbourhoods, especially in the Bronx and Brooklyn, where during the 1970s and 1980s no middle-class person in their senses would have set foot, have become gentrified, mainly because the streets are now relatively safe.
It is a fact of life that very disproportionate percentages of violent crime in America are committed by poor blacks, with 53 per cent of persons arrested for murder in 2016, 55 per cent of those arrested for robbery and 33 per cent arrested for aggravated assault, being African-Americans. The suggestion is that these figures, as bad as they are, would actually have been far worse but for Roe v Wade. Another very surprising finding made by a recent sociologist is the so-called Flynn Effect, that, overall, the IQs of children in advanced countries have been rising, according to IQ tests, over the past decades— a finding which few would have postulated in advance. As with the decline in violent crime, it is reasonable to infer that, if true, this has been due in part to the termination of pregnancies among those likely to score the lowest on intelligence tests.
Another wholly negative group which has arguably seen a decline in recent years are psychopathic serial killers in America, mainly young white men, whose number may well have declined in recent decades for the same reason: while gunfire massacres still of course occur, these are believed to be less common than they were several decades ago. Many of the most notorious serial killers have come from backgrounds where abortion is now common. For example, Charles Manson, the infamous cult leader in California, whose followers committed at least nine murders, was the son of a sixteen-year-old unmarried girl in Cincinnati. Manson’s biological father is unknown, but was probably a mill hand and “con artist”, who abandoned the mother when he learned she was pregnant, and was never seen again. Today, there is probably a 95 per cent likelihood that Manson would have been quickly aborted once his mother, in the same situation, learned that she was pregnant. Even the most sincere opponent of abortion can surely see that in this case the termination of the unborn Manson would have resulted in a gain for humanity, sparing nine innocent lives and saving the taxpayer the millions of dollars needed to keep this monster in prison for nearly half a century. Similarly, Ted Bundy, probably America’s most prolific serial killer, who murdered at least thirty women (some estimates put the figure at over one hundred), and who was executed in Florida in 1989, was the son of an unmarried woman in Vermont; the name of his father is unknown, the mother claiming to have been seduced by a sailor. Again, it seems a near certainty that, today, Bundy would have been quickly aborted. Many other infamous serial killers in America have come from similar backgrounds.
The liberalisation of abortion has also had a very significant impact upon America’s political outcomes. Had the black population been significantly larger, it is doubtful that any Republican candidate would have won the presidency since George H.W. Bush in 1988. His son, George W. Bush, received half a million fewer votes than the Democratic candidate Al Gore at the 2000 election, but won by one electoral vote, thanks to coming out ahead in Florida by 537 disputed votes. Had a significantly larger number of blacks voted, it is unlikely that Bush would have carried Florida or been elected. In 2016, Donald Trump was unexpectedly elected president, despite receiving 2.9 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, who piled up massive majorities in liberal states like California and New York, but lost narrowly in enough states for Trump to win. Trump carried Michigan by only 10,704 votes and Wisconsin by 22,748 votes, putting him over the top in electoral votes. According to detailed survey analysis, 88 per cent of blacks voted for Clinton. Blacks comprised 12 per cent of all voters; had the black population been even marginally greater, Clinton would have been elected. Similarly, without the demographic effects of abortion, there would have been perhaps another twenty to thirty blacks in the US House of Representatives, probably giving the Democrats a permanent majority. Most of these would probably have been elected in normally Republican seats in the South. America’s cities would probably not have experienced a decline in violent crime, and racial tensions would have grown, along with the welfare rolls.
The situation in Australia exhibits some similarities with America, but clearly not in the same far-reaching form. Laws regarding abortion vary from state to state, and are arguably more restrictive than in America. The number of abortions carried out in Australia is unclear, with comprehensive figures published only for South Australia and Western Australia. Projecting these figures nationally, it has been estimated that about 70,000 to 73,000 terminations were performed in 2017, compared with 305,000 live births, which suggests that about 19 per cent of pregnancies here are terminated. Little can be inferred about the socio-economic status of Australian women who obtain abortions. In South Australia, 81 per cent of abortions occur in metropolitan areas. In Western Australia, the abortion rate is lower among Aborigines (12.2 per 1000 women) than among non-Aborigines (17.6 per 1000 women).
Unlike the United States, Australia lacks a large section of the population strongly associated with violent crime: arguably only two small ethnic groups, Lebanese Muslims in Sydney and South Sudanese in Melbourne, have recently been connected in the popular mind with violent crime. Nor does it have much of a persisting record of psychopathic serial killing, with the Port Arthur massacre of 1996 being the most infamous of a handful of such events. Australia has no equivalent of America’s Second Amendment giving citizens the “right to bear arms”, while Port Arthur resulted in severe restrictions on the sale of guns and rifles. For these reasons, much more research is needed to clarify the effects of abortion on recent Australian society.
William D. Rubinstein held chairs of history at Deakin University and at the University of Wales, and is currently an adjunct professor at Monash University.