The Obama Watch

Evangelical Left Ethicist Defends Obama on Abortion

Fuzzy math works political miracles.

By 5.20.09

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In October 2004, conveniently during the presidential election, Evangelical Left ethicist Glenn Stassen of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, gained widespread attention for arguing that abortion rates had increased under President Bush after declines under President Clinton. A John Kerry supporter, Stassen sought to justify evangelical support for a pro-abortion rights candidate, arguing that wider welfare state programs more effectively reduce abortion than legal restrictions.

As many critics then pointed out, Stassen's sweeping claims were selectively based on abortion data for only 16 states through 2003. Now armed with more comprehensive data, and energized by President Obama's Notre Dame controversy, Stassen, a strong Obama supporter, is claiming vindication.

"Abortions reduced by 300,000 a year during the Clinton years, stayed flat or increased during the Bush years, and if they resume their reductions during the Obama years, then many consistently pro-life people like me will conclude that we should judge administrations not by their words but by their fruits," Stassen triumphantly concluded in a recent piece for Sojourners, Jim Wallis's website for liberal religionists. 

Just as five years ago, Stassen's latest claims about abortion data are confusing. Based on reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), he asserted that abortion rates for women had decreased "dramatically" through 2000 but stalled from 2000 to 2005. Ostensibly abortion rates were high under Bush because his administration "cut back crucial supports for mothers and babies such as the Children's Health Insurance Program; Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); food stamps; and Pell Grants for college education."

Why does Stassen imagine that social spending fell during the Bush Administration? Spending on WIC's supplemental food program grew from under $4.1 billion in 2001 to over $6.2 billion in 2008. By the end of 2008, a record 31.5 million Americans were receiving food stamps, having increased from under $18 billion in 2001 to over $37 billion in 2008. By comparison, food stamp spending fell from $24 billion to $18 billion from 1993 to 2000. Spending on the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), started at $2.7 billion in 2001 and rose to $5.7 billion in 2007, with coverage increasing from 4.6 million children to 6.6 million. Pell Grants for college education increased from $11 billion to over $16 billion, though surely it is a far-sighted mother who pegs her decision about abortion based on college aid availability.

As to overall abortion rates, the CDC admits that data for California (with 15 percent of the nation's population) and several other dates is unavailable after 1998. Counting just those 46 states for which data is available from 1995, abortions declined from 894,000 in 1995 to 836,000 in 2000. From 2001 they declined from 833,000 to 810,000 in 2005. The rate per 1,000 births went from 280 in 1995 to 249 in 2000 to 236 in 2005. The rate per 1,000 women went from 18 in 1995 to 16 in 2000 to also 16 in 2005. In other words, abortions did decline numerically and per 1,000 births during Bush's first term.

The highest abortion rates seem to have been in 1984, with over 1.3 million abortions, 364 per 1,000 births and 24 per 1,000 women (these numbers include California and the other later missing states). Abortion rates had climbed continuously from 1970, with 193,000 abortions and 52 per 1,000 live births and 5 per 1,000 women, climbing steeply all the way through the 1970s and early 1980s. In other words, the reverse in abortion rates began midway during the Reagan years, a time of supposed hostility to social programs that Stassen claims deter abortion.

Stassen seemingly credited the Clinton Administration for declining abortion rates. But he may as well credit the Republican Congress of the 1990s, or the majority of state governments that had Republican governors and legislatures, or the increased attempts by states to regulate abortion, or simply the social gains by the pro-life movement. The CDC data also shows that socially liberal, wealthy states with presumably more extensive social programs have higher abortion rates than socially conservative, poorer states with presumably fewer resources. Among the poorer, more conservative states in 2005 by residence, Alabama had 164 abortions per 1,000 births and 11 abortions per 1,000 women. Mississippi had 148 and 10. West Virginia had 100 and 6. Kentucky had 46 and 3. By comparison, New York had 482 and 29; Rhode Island had 308 and 18; Massachusetts had 302 and 17; and Connecticut had 300 and 17. 

It's not at all clear how Stassen could claim that abortion "reduced 300,000 during the Clinton years." From 1993 to 1997, abortion dropped from 1.3 million to just under 1.2 million (with figures including California and three other later missing states). From 1998 to 2000 (with California and three other states missing), abortion dropped from 884,000 to 857,000. The drop during Clinton's second term is not very different from the drop during Bush's first term, from 853,000 in 2001 to 820,000 in 2005.

Stassen celebrated that the Obama administration is "expanding health care insurance for children and planning health insurance for all of us, is working to get the economy revived, and is supporting programs to curb unintended pregnancy," while restoring "support for the working poor." All of this additional government will create a wider pro-life ethic, Stassen claimed. But he ultimately provided no evidence for his hope. Instead, like others on the Evangelical Left, he seems to be straining for an excuse to minimize unrestricted abortion's legality as an issue while bolstering arguments for what he already obviously strongly desires: a larger welfare state.

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.