How do U.S. abortion rates compare to natural child mortality?

A focus on death is not an intentional feature of this space, but the topic of prenatal death came up recently based on a conversation with someone about the idea of abortion as genocide.

Since 1973, each year in the United States there have been about one million abortions, give or take. Add that up and you get a very big number that can be insensitively used to make comparisons with The Holocaust.

So to give that perspective the benefit of empathy, let’s assume for a moment that all abortions involve removing from life fully formed persons, able to experience pain and terror and happiness. If all abortions performed in the United States during the past 40 years were actually late-term abortions, how would that compare to being born in the developing world where the leading causes of death for children 5 and younger are pneumonia and diarrhea?  

This is interesting. Absolute numbers for population and birthrates set aside, currently (or as currently as we have reliable numbers for) the United States has a higher rate of abortion than the highest nations’ death rate for children younger than 5.

That’s surprising. But, it’s a cause for optimism that there’s a wider decline is present in all of them, reflecting safer medical practices in childcare and disease prevention, and increased availability of contraceptives for family planning. (Also, American teens having less sex, generally.) The United States birth rate continues to plug, plug along steadily, but those who become pregnant are more likely to carry to term than any time since 1973.

Comparing to the past, a bit more than half as many pregnancies were likely to be terminated in the U.S. in 2011 as born children were to die in before their 5th birthday in 1970 Mali. In 1960, not quite half of all children (498 per 1,000) born in Mali died young, which was normal in the developing word not so long ago, and true of the whole rest of the world but a few centuries before. That’s putting my finger on the scale, yes, but it is easy to forget what several hundred thousand years preceding looked like.

As a comparison for the horribleness of a baby being stabbed while exiting the womb, or some other worst-case abortion scenario, malaria or dysentery returning you to the earth before you can speak whole sentences — that’s up there. But late term abortions are actually extraordinarily rare. Despite what goes up on billboards, less than 2 percent of abortions occur after 21 weeks, 90 percent occur before week 13, and almost two-thirds are completed before eight weeks, when we still haven’t matriculated from embryo to fetus.

The natural miscarriage rate is estimated from 100 up to 250 deaths per 1,000 conceptions even if the woman’s health isn’t at issue, but that can be really tricky to measure. Instead, let’s lop off all of the deaths between age 1 and 5, till we’re just left with the infant mortality rate of 0 to 1 years old. Then we’ll average out the years 1970 to 2010 in each nation for comparison to  the fetal induced-abortion rate (everything after 8 weeks).

For fun, I also added in the U.S. infant mortality rate from 1915, a reminder of how good the century has been to people.

What conclusions can you draw from that? I don’t know. Until very recently, life was not at all precious, and that seems to be the conclusion of our pre-modern tribal religions as well. Strictly biologically speaking, the womb is a place a degenerate Russian Roulette player might be nervous trying to survive for nine months, and if you believe in a soul, you have to reconcile that with the tens of billions of people born through human history who died before ever managing to form an opinion on anything around them.

Human technological advancement has made it possible to have some degree over procreation, and mothers and children die less than in the past, even if you believe life begins at conception.

Certainly, that should be something worth celebrating.


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