The total spans 40 years, beginning with the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on Jan. 22 legalizing abortion nationwide. The abortion count is based on data compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. National Right to Life releases an annual tally using the Guttmacher data.
"That's 55 million creative minds, 55 million people that could be working, 55 million that could be contributing to society," Randall K. O'Bannon, National Right to Life's director of education and research, told Baptist Press. "It's hard to fathom all the different ways in which any person has the potential to impact the community and impact our country. The loss is staggering."
To put the total of 55 million in perspective, the combined number of military deaths in all of America's wars -- from the Revolutionary War to the second Iraq war -- is 1.2 million.
The number is large partially because Roe and its companion decision, Doe v. Bolton, placed America's abortion laws to the left of most of the developed world. For instance, most of Europe -- including Great Britain, Spain, Germany and Sweden -- have more restrictions on abortion than does the United States.
Roe and Doe legalized abortion at any stage of pregnancy, for any reason. A 2004 Guttmacher study found that 86 percent of abortions are done for convenience. Rape and incest each were cited by less than half of a percent of all women who underwent abortion.
Great Britain's abortion laws permit abortion during the first 24 weeks, and the procedure must be approved by two doctors. The U.S. has no such restrictions.
In the first full year (1974) after Roe, there were 898,600 abortions, according to Guttmacher. That number climbed to 1,553,900 in 1980 and reached an all-time high of 1,608,600 in 1990. It has fallen in nearly every year ever since and today stands at about 1.2 million a year.
O'Bannon says he doubts most people know that more than 1 million abortions are performed each year -- much less that 55 million have been performed since Roe.
"I don't have any recent polling, but I know that in the past, when they've asked people how many abortions they thought there were, few people demonstrated they had a knowledge there were more than a million a year," O'Bannon said.It may look at times like pro-lifers are losing, but polls show that in many areas, they actually are winning. For example, the same polls that show Americans support Roe also show Americans support restrictions that Roe prohibited. In other words, Americans don't understand Roe's reach.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted Jan. 12-15 showed that only 31 percent of adults said abortion should always be legal -- the concept backed by Roe and Doe. An additional 23 percent said it should be legal most of the time, 35 percent said it should be legal only in cases of rape, incest and to save the mother's life and 9 percent said it should never be legal. A CNN poll Aug. 22-23 last year had similar findings. It showed only 35 percent of Americans said abortion should always be legal. Nine percent said it should be legal in most circumstances, 37 percent said legal in a "few circumstances" and 15 percent said it should never be legal. Taken together, the two polls show that most Americans believe abortion should either be illegal all or most of the time, or at least have far more restrictions than permitted by Roe.
O'Bannon said a number of factors are helping transform Americans' views on abortion to more of a pro-life stance. Among them are new medical technologies showing the baby moving and playing inside the womb, even sucking his thumb. The partial-birth abortion debate, which began in the late 1990s and placed pro-choicers on the defense, also had an impact, he said. Gallup polling shows that the percentage of people identifying themselves as "pro-choice" fell during the 1990s as the debate intensified, and the percentage that called themselves "pro-life" increased.
"As they have found out what abortion involves, Americans began to see abortion involved children with hands and feet and faces," O'Bannon said. "They pulled back, and it made a difference. When a woman becomes pregnant, she gets a picture of an ultrasound and she takes it in her office and she shows it to everybody else. That's pro-life education right there."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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