By LAWRENCE P. GRAYSON
There is a feeling of hope among pro-life advocates that after 41 years of battling legalized abortion, their efforts are bearing results. The Guttmacher Institute recently reported that the number of abortions in the United States decreased from 1.21 million in 2008 to 1.06 million in 2011, a dramatic 13 percent decline, while the number of abortions per 1,000 women fell to 16.9, a historic low. In addition, 87 abortion clinics closed or stopped offering surgical abortions in 2013, reducing the total number of such facilities in the United States to 582, which is 73 percent below a high of 2,176 clinics in 1991. A number of pro-life organizations think that abortion is a failing business.
While abortions are decreasing and children in the womb are being saved in significantly increasing numbers, there is a disturbing trend that may be the forerunner of increased abortions, but at earlier stages of pregnancy. There is a shift from surgical abortions to medication abortions, that is, through the use of the pill. While the number of abortions continued to decline from 2001 to 2011, medication abortions increased from 6 percent to 23 percent of all abortions in that decade.
Contraceptive pills operate in one or more of three ways. First, they attempt to prevent ovulation. If ovulation does occur, they then try to block the sperm from joining the ovum or egg. When this fails, the drug acts to prevent the fertilized ovum from attaching to the uterus. The earliest birth control pills, approved for use in the United States in 1960, operated to prevent ovulation, and secondarily to inhibit fertilization. These two effects are truly contraceptive, for the ovum is never fertilized. Although the Catholic Church disapproves of all contraceptives because they thwart the generative aspect of the conjugal act, these first two actions do not involve the destruction of new life.
The third effect — to impede the fertilized ovum from attaching or remaining attached to the mother’s uterus — terminates a life. That is abortion.
A fertilized ovum, called a zygote, is the first stage of human life. This simple cell has all of the genetic information and capabilities to continue developing through its embryonic and fetal stages into a newborn child, and then toward becoming an aged adult. This is a continuous progression, and the preborn stages only require nourishment and protection gained through attachment to the mother’s uterus. The process of life begins at fertilization; there is no scientific disagreement on this.
Organizations such as the Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood, as well as some federal government policies, attempt to finesse the fact. They state that pregnancy starts not at fertilization, but when the fertilized ovum is implanted in the uterus. The distinction between the beginning of a child’s life and the onset of a mother’s pregnancy is critical. It allows drug companies to claim that a drug which prevents implantation is a contraceptive since it prevents pregnancy, rather than an abortifacient that terminates a life.
In September 2000, the Food and Drug Administration approved mifepristone (previously known as RU 486) for abortions. The drug, taken as a pill, blocks the action of the hormone progesterone, which is necessary to sustain a pregnancy. The result is that the embryonic child is detached from his mother’s uterine lining and expelled.
Ella, a relatively new drug, has been included among the contraceptives to be provided to women under Obamacare-mandated health insurance plans. It has been approved for use, according to its manufacturer, in case of “birth control failure.” This “morning-after” pill acts to prevent the attachment of the fertilized ovum to the uterus and, thus, like mifepristone, is an abortifacient.
As medication abortions replace surgical ones and contraceptive drugs become more effective and even easier to obtain, more and more abortions will occur by simply “popping a pill.” There will be no need to go to an abortion clinic, face pro-life prayer warriors and counselors, possibly see graphic images or view an ultrasound picture, and undergo a surgical procedure. The woman will have less anxiety or feelings of guilt, as her actions will seem akin to taking an aspirin or a vitamin.
An unaddressed challenge for the pro-life movement is that many people who profess to be Catholic approve of contraception. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in March 2013, shortly after Pope Francis was elected, found that 76 percent of Catholics — with virtually no differences among men or women, young or old — approved of birth control. Even among those who attend Mass weekly, 62 percent thought the Church should allow it.
These findings were repeated in a global survey on social issues, commissioned by Univision and released in February 2014. It reported that four out of five self-identified Catholics in the United States support the use of contraceptives, while three out of four say that abortion should be allowed at least in some cases.
There is a significant discontinuity between the beliefs of the laity and the teachings of the Church. Catholics have not and are not being taught the Church’s position. But who will teach them? Not too many decades ago, Church teachings were presented in Catholic elementary and high schools by nuns, priests, and brothers. Today, that is not the case.
Catholic schools and religious teachers do not exist in adequate numbers. Despite self-identified Catholics in America increasing from 49 million in 1965 to 78 million in 2013, the number of students in Catholic elementary and secondary schools plummeted from 5.2 million in nearly 13,000 schools to 2.0 million in 6,800 schools in that same period. As for religious teachers, they are almost nonexistent. There were 180,000 nuns in 1965 and most of them taught; Today, there are 51,000 and most of them do not.
The pro-life movement is faced with a growing, significant challenge. As increasing numbers of abortions are done at earlier stages with pills, not only the hearts and minds, but the consciences of people must be formed to recognize the existence and dignity of the human person at the earliest stages of development and the evils of contraception and abortion in all their forms. This will be countercultural and not easy, but must be done.
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(The author is a visiting scholar in The School of Philosophy, The Catholic University of America.)