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Austin Cline

Abortions Highest Where Religion is Highest

By March 7, 2008

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Given how opposition to legal abortion is almost entirely based on religious dogma, one might think that areas where belief in religious dogma is highest will be areas where abortion is lowest. That, however, is incorrect - abortion rates are highest in places where religiosity is highest but lowest in more secular areas. This is not an incidental correlation: not only does it disprove the popular idea that secularism destroys the moral values which oppose abortion, but it points to how religion itself can make demand for abortion higher.
As societies become more prosperous and women acquire better opportunities, they seek smaller families. In the early years of transition, contraceptives are often hard to obtain and poorly understood, so women will also use abortion to limit the number of children. But, as a study published in the journal International Family Planning Perspectives shows, once the birth rate stabilises, contraceptive use continues to increase and the abortion rate falls. In this case one trend causes the other: "Rising contraceptive use results in reduced abortion incidence." The rate of abortion falls once 80% of the population is using effective contraception.

A study published in the Lancet shows that between 1995 and 2003, the global rate of induced abortions fell from 35 per 1,000 women each year to 29. This period coincides with the rise of the "globalised secular culture" the Pope laments. When the figures are broken down, it becomes clear that, apart from the former Soviet Union, abortion is highest in conservative and religious societies. In largely secular western Europe, the average rate is 12 abortions per 1,000 women. In the more religious southern European countries, the average rate is 18. In the US, where church attendance is still higher, there are 23 abortions for every 1,000 women, the highest level in the rich world. In central and South America, where the Catholic church holds greatest sway, the rates are 25 and 33 respectively. In the very conservative societies of east Africa, it's 39. One abnormal outlier is the UK: our rate is six points higher than that of our western European neighbours.

Source: The Guardian

It's not secularism, secular ethics, or atheism which causes increases in abortion rates; instead, it's the heavy hand of puritanical, patriarchal religion in a society where women are gaining power, equality, and wealth. Regardless of how religious a society is or what the religion is, increasing affluence and increasing female equality leads to desires for lower families. What male religious leaders can't seem to understand is that women don't want to spend all their days pregnant, nursing, and/or caring for children. Women actually want careers, autonomous lives, luxuries, and free time — you know, those things which so many men take for granted already.

Patriarchal religion resists the drive towards female autonomy — women must not be allowed to live lives not devoted to being baby factories — and so opposes sex education, contraception, or the right to control one's reproductive health. This leads to more unwanted pregnancies and, naturally also an increased demand for abortions. Religious and political leaders who merely want to reduce abortion rates should jump at the chance to follow the lead of the Netherlands, where abortion rates are lowest in the world:

There is also a clear relationship between sex education and falling rates of unintended pregnancy. A report by the United Nations agency Unicef notes that in the Netherlands, which has the world's lowest abortion rate, a sharp reduction in unwanted teenage pregnancies was caused by "the combination of a relatively inclusive society with more open attitudes towards sex and sex education, including contraception". By contrast, in the US and UK, which have the developed world's highest teenage pregnancy rates, "contraceptive advice and services may be formally available, but in a 'closed' atmosphere of embarrassment and secrecy".

A paper published by the British Medical Journal assessed four programmes seeking to persuade teenagers in the UK to abstain from sex. It found that they "were associated with an increase in the number of pregnancies among partners of young male participants". This shouldn't be surprising. Teenagers will have sex whatever grown-ups say, and the least familiar with contraception are the most likely to become pregnant. The more effectively religious leaders and conservative papers anathemise contraception, sex education and premarital sex, the higher abortion rates will go.

The fact that religious and political leaders not only don't want to emmulate the Netherlands, but in fact condemn what is done in that country and then proceed to recommend those policies which demonstrably increase abortion rates, proves that something more is going on. That "something more" is the desire to control sexuality, especially female sexuality, and women generally. What patriarchal religious leaders are unable to understand, though, is that women will find a way to end unwanted pregnancies.

Women's desire to end unwanted pregnancies is demonstrably stronger than either religious condemnation of abortion, criminalization of abortion, or social stigmatization of abortion, all of which pale in comparison to the horrible health risks associated with illegal abortions — risks which are also outweighed by the desire to end unwanted pregnancies. Put simply, if women are willing to risk infection, sterilization, and even painful death in order to end unwanted pregnancies, then priestly invocations against abortions will have little impact. Chillingly, as the Lancet paper shows, there is no relationship between the legality and the incidence of abortion. Women with no access to contraceptives will try to terminate unwanted pregnancies. A World Health Organisation report shows that almost half the world's abortions are unauthorised and unsafe. In East Africa and Latin America, where religious conservatives ensure that terminations remain illegal, they account for almost all abortions. Methods include drinking turpentine or bleach, shoving sticks or coathangers into the uterus, and pummelling the abdomen, which often causes the uterus to burst, killing the patient. The WHO estimates that between 65,000 and 70,000 women die as a result of illegal abortions every year, while 5 million suffer severe complications. These effects, the organisation says, "are the visible consequences of restrictive legal codes". ...

When the Pope tells bishops in Kenya - the global centre of this crisis - that they should defend traditional family values "at all costs" against agencies offering safe abortions, or when he travels to Brazil to denounce its contraceptive programme, he condemns women to death. When George Bush blocks aid for family planning charities that promote safe abortions, he ensures, paradoxically, that contraceptives are replaced with backstreet foeticide. These people spread misery, disease and death. And they call themselves pro-life.

Abortion is not opposed simply because it is perceived as intrinsically immoral, but because it is part of a constellation of practices which support female sexual, social, and political autonomy. All of those practices are opposed as immoral, irreligious, ungodly, and unnatural. Men who have appointed themselves representatives of a male god in the context of a church which has for millennia been run by men keep trying to prevent women from enjoying full equality and autonomy, but the tide of history is ultimately against them.

Comments
March 7, 2008 at 12:24 pm
(1) Rarus.vir says:

Why so surprised, did you think abstenance only actually works? Areas high in humanists would of course teach their young all about sex, so they dont need to clean up the mistakes as much. Religious people are idiots.

March 7, 2008 at 4:47 pm
(2) Jeremy says:

I brought this up to someone once during a discussion about abortion. His response was that this was only proof that people, even those that say they are religious, do not follow the right one. Of course, his was the the right one, although he also claimed that his religion was not a religion in actuality.

March 8, 2008 at 6:13 am
(3) Seeker says:

Interesting (but sad) fact.
The last decade or so, teen pregnancies and abortion rates have actually been rising in the Netherlands, caused by the “coming of age” of the immigrant population where, you guessed it, women are usually still treated as second rate citizens (both amongst Muslim communities, and Christian, East European and South American, communities) (http://www.minvws.nl/dossiers/abortus/abortus-in-feiten-en-cijfers/)

March 8, 2008 at 7:38 am
(4) Religiarchy says:

I agree with Seeker and Austin, it’s sad that women are treated so abysmally and feel so trapped, that they would go against their religion so blatantly. One more reason to do away with religion altogether. Imagine the happy, fulfilled lives they could be leading while not under the thumb of patriarchal religion.

March 8, 2008 at 8:29 am
(5) ej says:

Sometimes I receive emails from a fundamentalist family member with a picture of a supposedly aborted fetus attached. I have no idea what actually happened to the fetus but they appear to be pretty far along and so my guess is that they were actually illegal and done very late.

The part of this article about women drinking turpentine and ising stick made me want to go and search for some pics of women who have suffered through this. They probably would not be as effective if I could find any.

But I realized I could not do it. That is just way too low for me to go.

March 8, 2008 at 2:19 pm
(6) Eric says:

“Abortions Highest Where Religion is Highest”

I don’t believe this is true generally. For example, it doesn’t appear to be true inside the United States:

http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/policy/abortion/mapstatesabrate.html

There doesn’t appear to be much of a correlation between the religiosity of a state and the percentage of pregnancies that end in abortion. Indeed, more religious states like Utah and Alabama appear to have a smaller number of abortions than less religious states like Rhode island and Washington. This could be due to reduced access in more religiously conservative states (I heard that there was only one place in Alabama where you could get an abortion – I don’t know if that’s true), but I think the numbers can still reasonably give someone pause in wholesale acceptance of your conclusion that “religion itself can make demand for abortion higher.” Indeed, your own figures exclude Eastern Europe.

I think you can make a better case that increased religiosity does not, as proponents of conservative religion claim, necessarily reduce the demand for abortions than you can that religion itself affirmatively increases the demand for abortions.

March 8, 2008 at 4:59 pm
(7) Child of Thorns says:

I think Austin has a point, but rather than religion per se increasing the rate of abortions in countries where women are increasingly independant, it is just a generally repressive and anti female/reproductive rights type of atmosphere and culture.
Its similar to the fact that generally states where there is alot of atheism having generally more freedom and better human rights records, and then former communist countries being the exception. It isn’t necessarily atheism there, but a more free society that values individual rights (thus preventing the persecution of minority groups and allowing more academic freedom), something both communist states and theocracies share in their rejection of. It is the same, or similar, with abortion rates and religion.

March 8, 2008 at 6:08 pm
(8) Eric says:

As far as I can see, Austin’s only empirical support for his proposition that “religion itself can make demand for abortion higher,” is a comparison between Western European and American abortion rates. I think this is rather thin. I think it becomes thinner still when you examine the fact that abortion rates appear to be lower in the more religious states within the US.

This doesn’t mean that I disagree with his policy recommendations or the basic political thrust of this post, only that I think he’s going out on a limb with this particular proposition.

March 8, 2008 at 8:41 pm
(9) John says:

Eric,

You might want to check out this study from 1999 concerning the reasons why women seek abortions.

http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/ib_0599.html

The study notes women choose abortions when, naturally, they have an unwanted pregnancy, and they have unwanted pregnancies when they lack access to birth control. It connects the higher rate of abortions in the U.S. to the absence of national health care. The resulting lack of access to consistent effective birth control causes a higher rate of unwanted pregnancies compared to Western European countries which do have national healthcare programs.

But the study also notes the higher incidence of abortions in areas where the Pope’s prohibition against birth control is part of the established culture.

Abortions occur most often when women do not have control over their own reproductive rights, whether in China where aboritons are ordered by the government, in countries where the culture is heavily influenced by religious prohibitions against birth control, or in regions where women are too poor or uneducated to effectively utilize birth control.

It appears to me the Pope is trying to blame secularism for abortions to deflect attention from his own cuplability in causing women to have unwanted pregnancies which they terminate through abortion.

March 9, 2008 at 12:17 am
(10) Austin Cline says:

As far as I can see, Austin’s only empirical support for his proposition that “religion itself can make demand for abortion higher,” is a comparison between Western European and American abortion rates.

You must have missed the quote about comparing northern and southern Europe, or Europe to South America.

I think it becomes thinner still when you examine the fact that abortion rates appear to be lower in the more religious states within the US.

The lower availability of abortion probably has nothing whatsoever to do with that.

In contrast, we might want to consider the fact that women with no religious affiliation have among the lowest rates of abortion – higher than “evangelical,” but lower than other Protestants and Catholics.

March 9, 2008 at 3:01 am
(11) Eric says:

“The lower availability of abortion probably has nothing whatsoever to do with that.”

I don’t think that’s irrelevant, but I don’t think it’s decisive. As you noted, Central and South America have high rates of abortion, but I seriously doubt that it’s more widely available there than it is in the conservative areas of the United States.

If you’re being sarcastic, I don’t see why that’s necessary. I’m trying to respectfully disagree with you.

March 9, 2008 at 7:38 am
(12) Austin Cline says:

As you noted, Central and South America have high rates of abortion, but I seriously doubt that it’s more widely available there than it is in the conservative areas of the United States.

Depends upon where you are. In Europe, abortion rates are lowest in the north where it’s most widely available but highest in the south where it’s a bit harder to get.

In addition to lower access to abortion services, you also have to consider lower rates of comprehensive sexual eduction, higher rates of teen pregnancy, and higher rates of sexually transmitted disease. All of this adds up to the fact that sane choices like contraception and abortion simply aren’t on the table to the same extent as they are in other states. If only one or two counties in the entire state have an abortion clinic, how many poor people do you think will be able to get an abortion – especially when there are waiting periods, so they actually have to make the trip twice?

Abortion rates vary greatly from state to state, even in the South. Florida, Kansas, Georgia, Virginia, and Texas are all on the higher end of the scale; Maine, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Vermont are all lower. It’s thus misleading to simply say “abortion rates are lower in the south” as if the south were an undifferentiated mass.

March 9, 2008 at 10:59 am
(13) Eric says:

“Abortion rates vary greatly from state to state, even in the South. Florida, Kansas, Georgia, Virginia, and Texas are all on the higher end of the scale; Maine, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Maryland, and Vermont are all lower. It’s thus misleading to simply say “abortion rates are lower in the south” as if the south were an undifferentiated mass.”

Even if abortion rates aren’t uniformly lower in the South, among US states we still don’t see the pattern we would expect to see if it were true that “abortion is highest where religion is highest.” If lack of availability of abortion services is the real cause of low abortion rates in conservative religious states, why isn’t reduced access to abortion services causing similarly depressed rates in Southern Europe or Central and South America? Is impoverished, conservative Central America really that much better about providing abortion access? I have a hard time believing that abortions are easier to get in East Africa than in Utah.

March 9, 2008 at 12:31 pm
(14) Austin Cline says:

Is impoverished, conservative Central America really that much better about providing abortion access? I have a hard time believing that abortions are easier to get in East Africa than in Utah.

Those areas with high religion and high abortion rates are also those areas which have the highest numbers of unauthorized, unsafe, and dangerous abortions. Perhaps that was another portion that you skipped over before commenting.

Where abortion is heavily restricted, illegal abortions become a viable option because there develops an organized, underground network to ensure that abortion is possible — along with quacks who just want money and risk others’ lives, of course. Even the “safe” ones are very unsafe in comparison to those performed in a legal atmosphere, though.

Where abortion isn’t so heavily restricted, but simply made de facto unavailable, those networks simply don’t develop and illegal, unsafe abortions are more rare. Paradoxically, then, abortion might actually be made more available and more common in some U.S. states if it were banned by law than under the current scenario of being formally legal but de facto unavailable. Of course, it would also be more dangerous, leading to many more deaths — so it’s not a desirable trade-off. Paradoxical and ironic, yes, but not desirable.

So, I don’t have a hard time believing that abortions are easier to get in East Africa than in Utah. In East Africa, you need to know the right person who knows the right person — and be willing to risk death to get an illegal abortion. In some U.S. states, you have to take time off work, drive several hundred miles, then maybe do it all again, then pay several hundred dollars, perhaps brave crowds of screaming demonstrators, and all without your parents or family finding out about it. That’s all assuming that you even know were to look to find the one or two clinics in your state that will perform abortions. If you don’t have internet access or a good library, that may be impossible. Then, you need to make sure that you don’t mistakenly go to a “pregnancy crisis clinic” run by anti-choice groups and designed to lure in young women actually looking for abortion services.

I think that you might need to do a bit of research on the barriers that can face young women, especially poor women, when it comes to actually getting a technically legal abortion.

March 9, 2008 at 1:12 pm
(15) Eric says:

“Those areas with high religion and high abortion rates are also those areas which have the highest numbers of unauthorized, unsafe, and dangerous abortions. Perhaps that was another portion that you skipped over before commenting.”

I didn’t consider this important because I figured that it just pushed the question back one step – it left me with the question of why poor women in East Africa would be willing to get unsafe abortions, but not women in areas in which it is restricted in the United States. You explained that in your response here, but you did not explain that in your post.

“I think that you might need to do a bit of research on the barriers that can face young women, especially poor women, when it comes to actually getting a technically legal abortion.”

I’m not under some naive illusion that abortion is equally easy for all women to get everywhere. I do think it’s reasonable to wonder why the obstacles to women getting abortions in conservative states actually do stop women from getting abortions while obstacles in the Third World do not. You yourself have admitted that there’s a paradox here, and it’s one you’ve only now explained in this response and not in your post.

March 9, 2008 at 6:37 pm
(16) bob says:

Great scholarly work. Throw in one quote from the Pope (“globalised secular culture”) and nest it in a sentence to give attribution to the whole pararaph.

[G]lobalised secular culture is not even an independent clause. For all we know the actual quote was: ‘Tendencies to eat paste are heavily correlated with the expansion of the globalised secular culture.’

Good job choosing the Pope to create a subconscious association between Christians and abortions.

Third ignore the former Soviet Union because the were the first nation to legalize abortion and because their high abortion rates might scientifically skew your assumptions.

Ignore the other large, Communist influenced country–China, since they’re an atheistic country.

Ignore polytheistic and religious countries like India, sex trade countries like Thailand, and other non-religious countries that underreport their statistics to have a better global image.

March 9, 2008 at 10:37 pm
(17) akakiwibear says:

This is simply very bad science! It ignores any other causal factors such as relative wealth. To be valid the study would have had to separate other variables by linking the data to the actual abortions.

Apply a little atheist scepticism! try the analogy of wealthy residential areas and burglary rates – would you conclude that the wealthy people are more likely to commit burglary because they have higher rates of reported burglary than poor areas? Nah you are not that dumb, but yet you are happy to draw an equally invalid conclusion from this paper!

As food for thought, studies in New Zealand with:
1) an above average abortion rate
2) a free sexual climate and ready access to contraception and abortion
3) a generally secular society

Statistics (which are detailed) relate high abortion figures to socio-economic status – either the very poor nor the very rich – mainly the wannabe rich

Interesting is that a high proportion of abortions are second or subsequent (a fairly small group of woman account for a disproportionate number of abortions)

Also an emerging driver for the abortion rate is the desire among certain groups to have only one child – a boy – guess the feminists need to squeak up.

Finally, religion is not identified as providing any correlation with abortion rates.

March 9, 2008 at 11:15 pm
(18) Eric says:

“This is simply very bad science! It ignores any other causal factors such as relative wealth. To be valid the study would have had to separate other variables by linking the data to the actual abortions.”

To be fair, he doesn’t claim that religiosity is the only contributor to abortion rates.

March 10, 2008 at 11:07 am
(19) Austin Cline says:

Finally, religion is not identified as providing any correlation with abortion rates.

That is an obvious and outright falsehood. There is a very strong and consistent correlation between religion and abortion rates. The question isn’t whether the correlation exists, but why — and I find that the evidence tends to show that the “why” isn’t due to some separate, third factor but religion itself.

March 11, 2008 at 10:51 pm
(20) yani says:

Ignore the other large, Communist influenced country–China, since they’re an atheistic country.

Actually, with the one-child policy, and the high preference to have a male child instead of a female child, China would be a special case that has legislation that somewhat encourages abortion rather than condemn it – all for population control. Granted, the only punishment is a fine, but for the 99% who are hideously poor, that fine takes a hefty toll.

March 14, 2008 at 3:51 pm
(21) Deirdre says:

I once worked in a religious school and was appalled at the number of students who were outspoken about never using birth control because of their religious beliefs but who I knew were having sexual contacts like other teenagers.
Pregnancy in most cases meant hasty marriages but I wouldn’t be surprised if abortions were being secretly arranged. Of course, this was never discussed by parents or students.

October 10, 2008 at 3:10 pm
(22) Pstryder says:

Ignore the abortion rate. The abortion rate is only telling you the number of reported or calculable pregnancy terminations. Instead, look at the correlation of religiosity and unwanted pregnancies. That’s illuminating. (I have read the studies, I leave this research as an exercise for the reader.)

Instead of trying to figure out how to reduce the number of abortions via legislation or scarcity and cost, reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

The way I see it, the best way to reduce the number of abortions is to provide state-funded contraceptives, anonymously, free to the end-user, regardless of social and legal status. (Give any woman that wants it an exam paid for by the state, then mail birth-control to a place of her choosing, regardless of age.) Flame on, religious folks.

October 11, 2008 at 5:17 am
(23) Ken says:

Do the higher figures for abortion in the UK take account of the high number of women who are forced to come to the UK to take care of their problem?

October 11, 2008 at 6:50 am
(24) JoJo says:

Like the 5,000 Irish women that are forced to travel to the UK or the Netherlands every year because our government won’t get its head out of its arse and legalise abortion because the Catholic Church still holds disproportionate power here…

October 11, 2008 at 6:42 pm
(25) Tom Rees says:

There’s been some discussion here about whether these conclusions are statistically valid, and also about whether the abortion rate in Eastern Europe is an exception to the rule. I’ve taken a look at both of these in a bit of detail, if anyone is interested!

Religion and abortion – the facts

October 12, 2008 at 11:15 pm
(26) Karl says:

To Eric’s comment

Utah has predominantly members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Children (and adults) are instructed of God’s “Plan for Eternal Hapiness” and that procreation is definitely the essential function of that plan. Children are told early about their bodily functions compared to other “conservative or orthodox” religions about God’s plan for sexual responsibility.

To the author:

It was ancient Rome that figured out that fasting in addition to denial of food, water and sleep includes delayed sexual gratification. The norm or ideal behavior was for BOTH men and women to abstain from sex until age 20. AGE 20! this at a time when most people were dead by 38.
What the Romans found was that if a young man can exercise remarkable self discipline by training by his parents, extended family or society (the military) he would follow VERBAL orders well on the battlefield.

That self restraint learned in youth was the “stealth” weapon along with Roman statutory law, armory and engineering gave Rome its empire.

The societies that inhabited the conquered lands like North Africa, Arabia, the Middle East and Western Europe bought into that way of life and prospered. Taxes were lower than native rulers during the PAX ROMANA and trade flourished. Everyone immitated things Roman and therefore that cultural inheritance benfited many descendant nations to this day.

With a majority of society obseving sexual abstinace abortion IS severely diminished. This is a great lesson from ancient times.

Origins of Patriarchal Dominance:
At the beginning of the

November 4, 2008 at 2:28 pm
(27) Jimmy says:

Sorry I visited your web site. I mistook you for someone who had good sense and not an atheist. God’s word says:
The fool has said in his heart there is no God. Psalms 14:1

August 2, 2010 at 10:33 pm
(28) Arekushieru says:

And who said that? Not God. Sorry. Btw, before you accuse me of being an atheist, I would like to inform you that I am a Christian Unitarian Universalist.

September 14, 2010 at 12:17 am
(29) U sin says:

Funny was brought up in an Atheist home was a prostitute for 8years (who cares cuz their is no God)and had 2 abortions. Found Jesus followed him like I would a boyfriend and Now because of Him I have been abstinent for almost 5 years.Waiting and trusting in the husband God has for me:)

March 1, 2011 at 7:19 pm
(30) Jimette Fredette says:

Where is your point in life. God, the king of kings and Lord of lords is real. So don’t act like you know it all because guess what, He IS coming whether you like it or not and you will bow down to Him and if he doesn’t know you well your outta luck becuase you didn’t recognize Him and your headed to Hell. Eternity matters more than now. Look at the world and you know He exists. Refernce John 3:16 for the ability to get redemption.

April 11, 2011 at 5:22 pm
(31) Tom says:

Jimmy, Matthew 5:22, anyone? “but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.”

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