One of the questions that we hear from time to time is why GetReligion devotes so much attention to abortion since, from the point of view of some readers, the issue is political or scientific, but not "religious." Meanwhile, there are many supporters of abortion-rights who insist that people who oppose legalized abortion are -- pure and simple -- guilty of "trying to force their private religious beliefs" on other people. Wait. Don't click "comment" yet.
We are going to talk about a journalism question linked to this.
I bring this topic up because I am receiving quite a few emails about the following Rob Stein story from the Washington Post. Here's the top of the story:
The number of abortions performed in the United States dropped to 1.2 million in 2005 -- the lowest level since 1976, according to a new report.
The number of abortions fell at least in part because the proportion of women ending their pregnancies with an abortion dropped 9 percent between 2000 and 2005, hitting the lowest level since 1975, according to a nationwide survey.
At the same time, the long decline in the number of abortion providers appears to be stabilizing, partly a result of the availability of the French abortion pill RU-486, the report found, because some physicians who do not perform surgical abortions provide it to their patients.
Now there are all kinds of ways to spin these numbers, as you can see from the corresponding lede by Cheryl Wetzstein in the Washington Times.
You see, some people are going to leap on the declining abortion statistics, period. Others will focus on the slight decline in abortion providers, period. Here is that double-subject lede from the Washington Times:
A Guttmacher Institute report on abortions in the United States found that the number of procedures fell again in 2005, while the portion of abortions performed with pills instead of surgery doubled.
About 1.2 million abortions were performed in the United States in 2005, senior research associate Rachel K. Jones and her colleagues said in the Guttmacher Institute's new survey of abortion providers, released today. This is 8 percent fewer than in 2000, when 1.3 million abortions were performed, and 25 percent fewer than 1990, when the peak number of 1.6 million abortions were performed. The abortion rate, or number of abortions per 1,000 women in their reproductive years, fell by 9 percent from 2000, and by 34 percent from its peak in 1981.
Or consider this more historical lede from Judy Peres at the Chicago Tribune:
The abortion rate in the United States has fallen to its lowest level since 1974, the first full year after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the procedure nationwide, new data show.
The annual rate has been falling steadily since 1981, paralleling a sharp decline in the number of abortion providers. Recent years also have seen an upsurge in legislation making it more difficult for women to access abortions and for doctors to perform them.
What everyone is trying to do, of course, is answer the "why?" question in "who, what, when, where, why and how" formula beloved by journalists.
There does not appear to be an answer that is free of spin. There are ways to tell the story to raise money on the pro-abortion-rights side or on the anti-abortion side. You can talk about abortion declining, or you can focus on the fact that pills have, for many women, taken the place of surgery. Is the number of abortionists in frightening, neo-theocratic decline or is it actually rather stable?
What is striking, however, is that -- looking at the story from the cultural left or the right -- these stories are remarkably free of moral or religious questions. Might there be a moral component to the "why?" question in this case? Might a generation of seeing ultrasound images of unborn children have something to do with this? Are religious groups finally learning to balance concern for the mothers and their babies with condemnation of sex outside of marriage?
The questions are at least worth asking, even if there are no easy answers.