Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Let's get real about abortions

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
October 29, 2012 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's comment about rape sparked a firestorm of discussion.
Senate candidate Richard Mourdock's comment about rape sparked a firestorm of discussion.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: People often neglect the economic reasons behind the choice to have an abortion
  • He says those trying to reduce abortion need an answer to how to help women in need
  • Frum: Abortion rates fell in 1990s economic boom
  • Germany, which has generous maternity benefits, has much lower abortion rate, he says

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of seven books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- When Richard Mourdock delivered his notorious answer about rape and abortion, I was sorry that the debate moderator failed to follow up with the next question:

"OK, Mr. Mourdock, you say your principles require a raped woman to carry the rapist's child to term. That's a heavy burden to impose on someone. What would you do for her in return? Would you pay her medical expenses? Compensate her for time lost to work? Would you pay for the child's upbringing? College education?

"If a woman has her credit card stolen, her maximum liability under federal law is $50. Yet on your theory, if she is raped, she must endure not only the trauma of assault, but also accept economic costs of potentially many thousands of dollars. Must that burden also fall on her alone? When we used to draft men into the Army, we gave them veterans' benefits afterward. If the state now intends to conscript women into involuntary childbearing, surely those women deserve at least an equally generous deal?"

That question sounds argumentative, and I suppose it is.

Opinion: Mourdock's rape remark and extremism

David Frum
David Frum

But there's a serious point here, and it extends well beyond the anguishing question of sexual assault.

If you're serious about reducing abortion, the most important issue is not which abortions to ban. The most important issue is how will you support women to have the babies they want.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



As a general rule, societies that do the most to support mothers and child-bearing have the fewest abortions. Societies that do the least to support mothers and child-bearing have more abortions.

Germany, for example, operates perhaps the world's plushest welfare state. Working women receive 14 weeks of maternity leave, during which time they receive pay from the state. The state pays a child allowance to the parents of every German child for potentially as many as 25 years, depending on how long as the child remains in school. Women who leave the work force after giving birth receive a replacement wage from the state for up to 14 months.

McCain: Mourdock should say he was wrong
Uproar over Mourdock abortion remarks
Senate candidate clarifies rape comment

Maybe not coincidentally, Germany has one of the lowest abortion rates, about one-third that of the United States. Yet German abortion laws are not especially restrictive. Abortion is legal during the first trimester of pregnancy and available if medically or psychologically necessary in the later trimesters.

Even here in the United States, where parental benefits are much less generous, abortion responds to economic conditions. In the prosperous 1990s, abortion rates declined rapidly. In the less prosperous '00s, abortion rates declined more slowly. When the economy plunged into crisis in 2008, abortion rates abruptly rose again.

These trends should not surprise anyone. Women choose abortion for one overwhelming reason: economic insecurity. The large majority of women who chose abortion in 2008, 57%, reported a disruptive event in their lives in the previous 12 months: most often, the loss of a job or home.

Obama on Mourdock: Male politicians shouldn't make abortion decisions

Of the women who choose abortion, 58% are in their 20s. Some 61% of them already have a child. Almost 70% of them are poor or near poor.

Three-quarters say they cannot afford another child.

Pro-life and pro-choice debaters delight in presenting each other with exquisitely extreme moral dilemmas: "Would you ban abortion even in case of rape?" "Would you permit abortion even when done only to select the sex of the child?"

These dorm-room hypotheticals do not have very much to do with the realities of abortion in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Here's an interesting example of those realities: The Netherlands has one of the the most liberal abortion laws in the world. Yet for a long time, the Netherlands also reported one of the world's lowest abortion rates. That low incidence abruptly began to rise in the mid-1990s. Between 1996 and 2003, the abortion rate in the Netherlands jumped by 31% over seven years.

What changed? The Guttmacher Institute, the leading source of data on reproductive health worldwide, cites "a growing demand for terminations from women in ethnic minority groups residing in the country." Well over half of all abortions performed on teenagers in the Netherlands are performed on girls of non-Dutch origins.

These girls and women weren't being raped. They weren't selecting for the sex of their child. They chose abortion because they had become sexually active within male-dominated immigrant subcultures in which access to birth control was restricted, in which female sexuality was tightly policed, in which girls who become pregnant outside marriage are disgraced and in which the costs and obligations of childbearing loaded almost entirely on women alone.

Abortion is a product of poverty and maternal distress.

A woman who enjoys the most emotional and financial security and who has chosen the timing of her pregnancy will not choose abortion, even when abortion laws are liberal. A woman who is dominated, who is poor and who fears bearing the child is likely to find an abortion, even where abortion is restricted, as it was across the United States before 1965.

Santorum: Mourdock criticism 'gotcha politics'

So maybe at the next candidates' debate, a journalist will deflect the discussion away from "what if" and instead ask this:

"Rather than tell us what you'd like to ban, tell us please what you think government should do to support more happy and healthy childbearing, to reduce unwanted pregnancies and to alleviate the economic anxieties of mothers-to-be?"

Those are the questions that make the difference. It's amazing how little we talk about them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT