Russell and Duenes

Marvin Olasky: A Social History of Abortion in America

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abortionritesolaskyI just finished Olasky’s helpful book: Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America. Published in 1992, it’s a bit dated now, but still a very valuable book, in my opinion. His research raises questions about certain assumptions that pro-lifers tend to hold, namely, “that abortion was rare in the nineteenth century, that tough laws virtually ended the practice [of abortion], that doctors and ministers led the way, and that the anti-abortion consensus remained philosophically intact until the 1960s.” (p. 283). It was particularly disheartening to see that ministers and clergy often aided and abetted the practice of abortion, if by nothing else than silent acceptance of it. “[L]axity in Protestant churches especially was growing in the late nineteenth century…Some ministers had also become more accepting of sin in the name of what soon would be called compassion,… There was precious little appetite for exposing wrongdoing when many members and some ministers wanted their own wrongdoing to be let alone.” (p.165).

By the same token, Olasky concludes that pro-abortion groups are also wrong in some of their historical beliefs. It is not true “that abortion was widely accepted before [the 20th century], that abortion was diffused throughout the population, that abortion became illegal because regular doctors sought to drive out competition, and that abortion rates generally are unaffected by illegality or the development of alternatives.” (p.283). Abortion was largely confined to certain segments of the population (e.g., prostitutes and spiritists), and the rate of abortions did not really increase during the first 2/3rds of the 20th century.

I appreciated Olasky’s honesty in presenting the historical evidence about abortion practices in the U.S. As with all social and cultural practices around us today, the underlying rationales and motivations for our behavior are generally more complex than we imagine, and have been developing and trending over a much longer period of time than just a few decades. In America, abortion attitudes and practices were affected by forces as diverse as urbanization, theological liberalism, the eugenics movement, prostitution, gender egalitarianism, and the changing role of journalists, just to name a few. Further, according to Olasky’s estimates, the number of abortions in 1860s America, relative to the nation’s population at that time, translates, percentage-wise, into about the same number of abortions obtained today. This “similarity of overall abortion/ population ratios surprises many pro-lifers, because abortion then was sometimes doubly fatal and because the nineteenth century has been depicted as a time of ‘no compromise’ anti-abortion laws and strong anti-abortion lobbying by the American Medical Society and by church leaders.” (p.292). Indeed, it did surprise me to find out how many things have not really changed over the last century and a half with respect to abortion rates. This does not mean, however, that abortion was common across all sectors of society, nor that all sectors were accepting of it, as Olasky points out.

Another thing which has not changed is the role that men have played in abortion. I suspect the manner in which men have influenced women to have abortions has changed somewhat, yet then, as now, I believe that many women would not choose abortion but for the pressure and urging of the significant men in their lives. In earlier times, men would impregnate women and then abandon them, leaving them without the social and economic resources to raise the child. Today, fewer women may be without such resources, but the desire by men to have their women rid of the child has not changed.

Olasky further observes that, though laws against abortion do not change the human heart nor wipe out the practice of abortion, they are not thereby useless. They do have instructive power, and they are able to have a limiting or restrictive effect on the number of abortions. Thus, we do well to ignore the common argument of “let’s just change hearts and not worry about the laws.” Yes, heart change is needed, but the labor to implement laws which protect the unborn and which respect and aid mothers at the same time, is not wasted effort.

Another historical practice which comes in for detailed review is the way in which many women at risk for abortion, or who had already had an abortion (or had given birth), were cared for in practical ways by volunteer institutions. Many homes and organizations for women were established, and women were loved, cared for, and challenged to make spiritual changes in their lives in order to choose a better path for themselves. The importance of this cannot be overestimated. As Olasky says, “the anti-abortion forces examined the needs of populations disposed to abortion and found ways to keep some women from falling into the roles, situations, and beliefs that made abortion likely.” (p. 298). They did not save everyone, nor did they expect to. But what they did do was love women and their babies close up. They invested time and energy in their lives. It was actually quite astounding to see the tangible ways that people were able to make a difference, without the help of government aid. The eventual “professionalization” of social work certainly damaged much of the good work that was being done on the volunteer level. Yet “the practice of compassion, a century ago and today, means giving a woman undergoing a crisis pregnancy a physical home and a spiritual rock. It means the adoption of hard-to-place children. It means counseling and standing by desperate women. . . Yes, the slow pace of such efforts means that many lives have been lost also, but opponents of abortion need to realize that all have never been saved, even when law was firmly on the anti-abortion side.” (p.300).

Olasky provides a heartening question for pro-lifers to ask. Not, “why haven’t we been able to stop abortion?” But, “why aren’t things worse?” (p.302). I think this is right. Many work tirelessly and faithfully, in a variety of social, political and religious contexts, to make a difference in the lives of unborn babies and their families. Their efforts are not in vain. “The goal of today’s pro-lifers should be to repeat a nineteenth-century past in which abortion was successfully fought by moderate means under conditions that were spiritually far from ideal.” (p.306) We must continue our work of persuasion, continue to cry in the wilderness that all babies from conception onward are unique and special humans in the image of God, continue to press for just laws that protect the unborn and dignify their mothers (and fathers), continue to find and establish practical means for loving mothers and their babies, continue to expose lies that are told by those who would sacrifice our unborn children to the modern version of Molech, and always remember that it is “not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord.” We must also remember that God is wise, compassionate, just and merciful. He gives grace and strength, and He seeks and saves those to whom we show His love. He also provides resources for His children so that they can indeed demonstrate love in practical and sacrificial ways. May we pray for His resources, that we might win the more.

-D

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Written by Michael Duenes

July 20, 2013 at 3:09 pm

One Response

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  1. Thanks for writing this up.

    Andy M

    July 24, 2013 at 7:26 am


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