Better Health Care Means Fewer Abortions

One of the major obstacles to passing the health care reform bill has been a group of anti-abortion representatives led by Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI). Stupak's group say they would vote against any bill that doesn't include an amendment ensuring that no federal funds would be used to finance abortions. In fact, as I've written, the bill already contained just such provisions. And as my fellow Big Think blogger Lindsay Beyerstein says, it takes pretty tortured logic to argue any federal money goes toward abortions under the bill. But the whole discussion of whether the bill finances abortions obscures a key fact: passing the health care bill would probably lower the abortion rate.

The Stupak group's position makes so little sense on its own terms—they appear to be opposing a bill that exists only in their heads—it seems likely they are using the abortion issue as an excuse to oppose the bill. Still, it's easy to understand why they would not want public money to be used to pay for something find morally repugnant. And it's certainly possible to argue that making health care more affordable would make abortions more affordable as well. Setting aside the perversity of opposing health care on these grounds—in effect arguing that we should keep people poor and deny them access to health care so that they won't be able afford abortions—there are reasons to think that expanding health care coverage might actually reduce the number of abortions in the country.


As T.R. Reid points out, according to the U.N. the abortion rate is higher in the U.S. than in any other developed country, with almost 20.8 abortions per thousand women age 15-44. That's compared to 17.0 abortions per thousand women age 15-44 in Britain, 15.2 in Canada, 12.3 in Japan, and 7.8 in Germany. Many factors contribute to the abortion rate in the U.S.—including our unique demographics—but one striking difference between the U.S. and the rest of the developed world is that the rest of the developed world has universal health care coverage.

Reid offer two explanations why expanding health care coverage could reduce the abortion rate. One is that the people primarily get abortions after developing unwanted pregnancies. Greater access to doctors means greater access to contraception and improved family planning. If abortions are cheaper in countries with widespread health care, so is preventing unwanted pregnancies. The other explanation is that if women know they can afford medical care, they may be more likely to carry a child to term. Having and raising a child is, after all, much more expensive than getting an abortion. As Cardinal Basil Hume told Reid, "If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it's needed, she's more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn't it obvious?"

The truth is that increasing access to health care will save lives. Not just the lives of adults, but the lives of children, and even the lives of the unborn. This is a point Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI)—a former member of the Stupak group—made eloquently today when he explained his recent decision to vote for health care reform:

We must not lose sight of what is at stake here—the lives of 31 million American children, adults, and seniors—who don’t have health insurance. There is nothing more pro-life than protecting the lives of 31 million Americans. Voting for this bill in no way diminishes my pro-life voting record or undermines my beliefs. I am a staunch pro-life member of Congress—both for the born and the unborn.

In a letter to Congress, 60 Catholic leaders—representing 59,000 nuns—expressed the same sentiment. "Despite false claims to the contrary, the Senate bill will not provide taxpayer funding for elective abortions," they wrote. But it would provide pregnant women with medical care. "This is the real pro-life stance."

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