One of the many divides among modern Catholics is between what we might call the “moralizers” and the “justice seekers”. “Moralizers” are those who emphasize the importance of teaching people moral laws and urging them to abide by them. “Justice seekers” seek to mitigate various social evils (poverty, lack of access to health care, joblessness, etc.) and believe that if only these social evils are reduced, this will encourage people to behave better.
Moralizers tend to criticize the justice seekers by pointing out that following moral laws is apt to alleviate a lot of the social evils that worry the justice seekers, arguing, for example, that if one finishes high school, holds a job and gets married before having children, one is far less likely to be poor than if one violates these norms.
Justice seekers reply that the moralizers are not taking into account all the pressures there work upon the poor and disadvantaged, and argue that it’s much more effective to better people’s condition than to moralize at them (or try to pass laws to restrict their actions) because if only social forces weren’t forcing people to make bad choices, they of course wouldn’t do so.
(I’m more of a moralizer myself, but I think that we moralizers still need to take the justice seeker critique into account in understanding where people are coming from and what they’re capable of.)
One area in which the justice seeker approach seems to come into particular prominence is the discussion of abortion. We often hear politically progressive Catholics argue that the best way to reduce abortions is not to attempt to ban or restrict them, but rather to reduce poverty and make sure that everyone has access to health care. There’s an oft quoted sound bite from Cardinal Basil Hume (Archbishop of Westminster) to this effect:
“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?”
You’d think that it was obvious, but I’m suspicious of the idea that having more money or resources makes us better or less selfish people (an idea which strikes me as smacking of a certain spiritual Rousseauian quality that doesn’t take fallen human nature into account) so I thought it would be interesting to see if there’s any data on this.
I was not able to find data on the relationship of abortion to health insurance, but I was able to find data on the relation of abortion to poverty, and it turns out that the Cardinal, and conventional wisdom, are wrong.
It’s often pointed out that a disproportionate number of abortions are procured by women living below 200% of the poverty line (that’s about $22,000/yr for a single person). This causes people to conclude that poor women are more likely to abort because they can’t afford a child. As it turns out, however, poor women are less likely to abortion an unwanted pregnancy than non-poor women.
The numbers I’m looking at are from this study by the Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood — hardly an anti-abortion source) which looks at pregnancies and abortions for unmarried women aged 20-29 from 2001 to 2008.
The study looks at unmarried women in three economic groups: Those living below the poverty line (around $11,000 per year), those living between the poverty line and 200% of the poverty line ($11,000 to $22,000), and those making more than 200% of the poverty line. For convenience, I’m going to look at the two most extreme groups, those living below the poverty line and those who make more than 200% of the poverty line. The middle group falls pretty much in the middle on all statistics.
The first thing you see is that poor women get pregnant a lot more than better off women. The pregnancy rate for unmarried women living below the poverty line was 277 pregnancies per 1000 women in 2008. For unmarried women making more than 2x the poverty line, that rate was 56 per 1000 women. So poor women are five times more likely to get pregnant.
Now, the first thing that most people would guess is: Poor women must have a lot more unintended pregnancies. They can’t afford birth control, or they hadn’t had good sex education, or for some other social reason they’re not able to control their pregnancies.
Well, it turns out that for unmarried women between 20 and 29 a majority of pregnancies are unintended, but poor unmarried women have a lower percentage of unintended pregnancies than better off unmarried women. 67% of pregnancies of 20-29 year old unmarried women living below the poverty line were unintended in 2008 while 73% of pregnancies of unmarried women making more than 200% of the poverty line were unintended.
Even so, surely a woman with more means is going to be more able to support an unplanned child than a truly poor women, right? Well, she may be more able, but that’s not, on average, what she chooses to do. Unmarried women living below the poverty line aborted 48% of their unintended pregnancies in 2008. Unmarried women making more than 200% of the poverty line aborted 62% of their unintended pregnancies in 2008. So an unmarried woman living at more than 2x the poverty line is 30% more likely to decide to abort an unplanned pregnancy than an unmarried woman living below the poverty line.
Unmarried women are far more likely to abort unintended pregnancies (51% aborted) than married women (17% aborted), but unfortunately the Guttmacher report only provides income breakdowns of unmarried women, not married women. However, that does at least mean that the data we’re looking at is not thrown off by the fact that a much greater proportion of poor women are unmarried than better off women.
So it turns out that the conventional wisdom is wrong on all fronts. A smaller percentage of pregnancies are unplanned for poor women than for better off women. And a smaller percentage of poor women who have unplanned pregnancies abortion than better off women. The only reason why a disproportionate number of abortions are obtained by poor women is that they get pregnant far more frequently than better off women.
What this underlines is something that should be fairly obvious to anyone with a Christian understanding of fallen human nature: Having more money and resources does not make us better people. Those who are better off are just as capable of doing wrong than those who are less well off. Indeed, in this case, it appears that people who are better off are more likely to do wrong than those who are less well off.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t work to alleviate poverty or to make sure people are able to get the medical attention they need? Of course not. But this conventional wisdom that people only do wrong things because they’re not well off is simply not the case.
UPDATE: Okay, I’m realizing that due to some odd formatting on the Guttmacher study, I hadn’t realized that their data is split into two halves. First they provide overall rates of pregnancy, unintended pregnancy and abortion for all women 20-29 and break that data down into married and unmarried women. However, all of the demographic breakdowns which are provided in the lower section of each table are for unmarried women only. So the percentage of pregnancies which are unintended and the percentage of unintended pregnancies that end in abortion which I quote in the article are for unmarried women only. I’ve edited the article appropriately, but am leaving this update separately to make the changes clear.