Since 1973, no institution in the United States has been more firmly committed to protecting the unborn than the Catholic Church. Yet Catholics are just as likely to procure an abortion as other U.S. women. Why?
According to the latest numbers from the Guttmacher Institute, 24 percent of women who procure abortions identify as Catholic, almost the same as 22 percent of all U.S. women who called themselves Catholic in a 2014 survey by Pew Research Center. In the same sources, evangelical Protestants made up 27 percent of all women in the United States but only 13 percent of those who underwent abortions, revealing a greater reluctance toward choosing abortion, a greater reluctance toward revealing their religion on a survey or both.
Each of the 59 million abortions in the United States since 1973 is a tragedy with its own chain of decision-making that denies easy characterization. But statistical analysis can shed light on some of the patterns that make Catholic women’s decisions to abort distinctive. To make the church’s pro-life efforts more effective, we need to recognize that the faces of Catholic women who choose abortion are not always what we may presume.
We need to recognize that the faces of Catholic women who choose abortion are not always what we may presume.
The Guttmacher Institute, formerly Planned Parenthood’s research arm, regularly surveys women on their decision to undergo an abortion. I looked at data from a 2002 national survey of 10,683 abortion-procuring women between the ages of 15 and 44. (More recent detailed data is not publicly available, but the broad demographic trends reported by Guttmacher, including the percentage of women getting abortions who are Catholic, have remained relatively stable, suggesting that the data on subgroups still have validity.) In this data set, 27 percent were Catholic, and of those, nearly 23 percent were married. In other words, one out of every 16 women procuring an abortion is married and Catholic.
This data suggests that the face of a Catholic woman choosing abortion is often not a scared college student or a single woman trying to reach career aspirations but instead a stretched-thin married mother with children at home. Her challenges require us to recognize that pro-life outreach should not just focus on college campuses or inner-city clinics but on middle-class suburban parishes as well.
The face of a Catholic woman choosing abortion is often not a scared college student but instead a stretched-thin married mother with children at home.
Compared with other women procuring abortions, Catholic women in the Guttmacher survey tended to be older; that is, Catholic women over 30 were overrepresented in women choosing abortion. Compared with other religious groups, they were more likely to be married, and thus had higher household incomes, and also were more likely to be at home rather than in the workforce. Unsurprisingly, given the demographics of Catholicism in the United States, there were proportionately more Hispanics and fewer blacks than in the U.S. population as a whole.
Catholic women obtaining abortions were also more likely to have previously given birth. Seventy-two percent of married Catholic women in this group had already given birth at least twice, compared with 62 percent of other married women. Roughly four out of 10 Catholic women filling out the survey were having an abortion for the first time (a bit higher than among other women) and, on average, underwent the procedure about a week earlier in their gestation than non-Catholic women.
Among unmarried women, Catholics were more likely (64 percent to 54 percent) to say they intend to have children in the future. But married Catholic women were just as likely as other married women to say they did not intend to have another child. (A caveat: This data does not break down responses by religious practice. According to a 2016 Pew survey, 51 percent of all Catholics believe having an abortion is “morally wrong,” but that encompasses 83 percent among those who attend Mass at least weekly and only 38 percent for less frequent attendees.)
An effective pro-life ministry should take these uncomfortable statistics into consideration. Knowing that many of the women who pursue abortion wish to have children in the future should inspire us to redouble our efforts to provide material andpolitical assistance to moms facing current financial difficulties. In Washington state, thePREPARES program, which combines prenatal support and social services, is a prime example of the church working creatively to provide real support to women from a broad range of backgrounds.
As the average age of first-time motherhood continues to climb, our conversations around choosing life should take greater account of older women facing “crisis” pregnancies. We should consider what complex forces might drive a married Catholic woman to obtain an abortion—perhaps financial constraints, fear of neglecting other children or their careers or avoiding the social stigma of having “too many” children. We need to acknowledge the uncomfortable reality that married Catholic women are not immune from the economic, family and social pressures that drive the decision to pursue an abortion. True accompaniment—and a true “culture of life”—means understanding the contributing factors that result in the tragic decision to choose abortion and working to mitigate or eliminate them.