The Perfect vs. the Good

Although there is an argument as to who first said it, the old saying that “the perfect is the enemy of the good” may very well apply in the case of the voter who is perplexed as to what to do when it comes to deciding between the pro-life and the pro-choice camps regarding the issue of abortion.  One presidential candidate, even though he says that he wants to see the reasons and conditions (over half of them involve women who are low income or living in outright poverty) that lead to abortion reduced, has nevertheless openly supports the proposed Freedom of Choice Act or “FOCA.” The other has vowed, if elected, to try to see the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision overturned but otherwise either opposes or is very cool towards many of the social changes promised by the other.  All this would seem to leave the “Pro-life” voter in a real dilemma.   

But would the elimination of Roe vs. Wade actually lead to a reduction in the number of abortions?  In fact, according to U.S. Supreme Court Judge Scalia’s admission, such an eventual overturning of Roe vs. Wade, in strictly legal or constitutional terms, would only return the whole issue to the individual states, some of which might pass more restrictive laws, but others no doubt remove all restrictions.  So unless Congress were to enact a new law like FOCA, the result would be likely to be a patchwork of conflicting laws that would only make legal abortion less convenient, open the door to more illegal abortions, and in the process, do little to reduce the actual number of abortions.

This conclusion would seem to be supported by world wide statistics painstakingly gathered by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, and published in 1999. Relying on various government reports, worldwide and regional estimates from the World Health Organization, and special studies made of ten countries where abortion is highly restricted, the Institute concluded that in 1995 there were some 46 million abortions (26 million legal and 20 million illegal) around the world for an overall rate of 35 abortions per 1,000 persons, with approximately one-fourth of all pregnancies being terminated by abortion.

The Institute found that the lowest abortion rates (with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, where high birthrates, and high infant mortality and high maternal death rates still prevail and clinical abortion, except in the nation of South Africa, is largely unavailable) are to be found in countries that have universal health care with little or no restrictions on abortion and which provide effective contraceptives.  For example in 1995, Western Europe, which generally (with the exception of Ireland and Portugal) affords all these services, had an overall rate of 11 per thousand population (even as low as 6.8 per thousand in Belgium) as compared to the 22 per thousand for North America. Latin America (where abortion was still illegal except in Cuba and Puerto Rico and a few other Caribbean islands) has an overall abortion rate of about 37 per thousand people. Eastern Europe has an overall rate of 90 per thousand, and Asia 33 per thousand, with China’s nearly 8 million abortions (compared to a population of one and quarter billion) amounting to about 28 per thousand.

Closer to home, abortion was totally illegal everywhere in Canada until the Canadian parliament passed a law back in 1969 allowing, but with some restrictions on late term abortions, similar to those envisioned by those proposed in FOCA but applied much more stringently.  Following that measure, the number of legal abortions (percentage wise) in Canada rose at first, much as in the U.S.A. in the early 1970s when individual states began to liberalize their laws, then slowly began to drop  (16.9 per thousand in Canada in 1997) matching the trend in the U.S.A. (29.3 in 1981 to 19.4 in 2005) — this despite a troubling rise in the rate following a 1988 decision by Canada’s Supreme Court striking down all restrictions on abortion.

Nevertheless, I think the general lesson seems clear: overly restrictive laws against abortion simply do not work.  One way or another people will evade them.  Some latitude must be allowed to deal with human failings or else the situation only further deteriorates.  This may not be the perfect or ideal solution, but human experience seems to be telling us, over and over again, that this may be the only practical way of dealing with the problem.

Of course, moral perfectionists will never agree to this, nor need they, at least in principle. After all, it is the function of religions to preach ideals, and it might even be argued that such idealism is necessary for the continued moral or ethical progress of humanity. Strictly logical reasoning also tells us that, aside from strictly medical complications, refraining from sex, unless a child is desired in the first place, would practically eliminate all abortions. But, taking our evolutionary origins and its inherited baggage (“Original Sin”) into consideration, who would attempt to enforce such a restriction?

R W Kropf   10/29/08                                              PerfectVsGood.doc  08-10-29.html