Scott MacKay Commentary: Is Abortion Back As A Rhode Island & National Issue?

Dec 9, 2016

As we saw during the presidential campaign, abortion continues to be a wedge issue in American politics. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says that the rhetoric on this issue may be up, but abortions are down.

It’s been more than four decades since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Roe v. Wade case made abortion legal in the United States. When the opinion was handed down in 1973, many thought it would end the caustic debate over the medical procedure.

Think again. If anything, the national joust over abortion has only grown louder in recent years. During the presidential campaign Donald Trump promised to appoint high court justices who would look with disdain on legal abortion. In a post-election interview with CBS 60 Minutes, the president-elect envisioned a nation where some seeking abortions would have to travel outside their own state to get safe, legal abortion services. Trump’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, has long been one of the strongest anti-abortion voices in Congress.

What’s striking about abortion is that the number of women seeking abortions has plummeted, both nationally and in Rhode Island, one of the country’s most heavily Roman Catholic states. In 2000, there were 4,228 abortions in the Ocean State. By 2010, that number dropped to 3,367. By 2014, the last year for state Department of Health data, that figure had dropped to 2,344.

Despite years of rhetoric on both sides, cooler heads have failed to come up with any compromise on this most contentious of topics. Expecting a meeting of the minds on this issue is akin to bringing a New York strip to a vegan picnic. While other culture war issues, most recently same sex marriage, seem to fade after a political decision is reached , abortion has not.

On the anti-abortion side, advocates say that continued activism has had the intended result of decreasing abortions. Barth Bracey, executive director of Rhode Island Right to Life, the anti-abortion lobby, also says that young people are more anti-abortion than their parents’  generation.

"We’re seeing more young people identifying as pro-life,’’ he said.

Even though Millennials are more open to developments such as gay marriage and pre-marital sex than older generations, they still have conflicts about abortion. In a 2015 report by the Public Religion Research Institute, 55 percent of those born between 1980 and 2000 said abortion ought to be legal in most or all cases, 42 percent it should be illegal in most or all cases.

Bracey also believes the anti-abortion side has been helped by technology, especially the widespread use of sonograms. Nowadays, the first photo on a grandparents mantel or refrigerator magnet is often the "unborn baby" depicted in a sonogram.

Bracey and others welcome the spotlight that Trump’s anti-abortion views have put on the issue. The new president is much more on the so-called "pro-life" side than either President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, who in her campaign forcefully pledged to protect abortion rights.

Those who support legal abortion worry about a Trump presidency. The threat to the Supreme Court is a concern, says Craig O’Connor, director of public policy at Planned Parenthood of Southern New England. Yet, a more immediate problem for those who vow to keep abortion legal is the Republican plan to repeal Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion ushered in under Obama.

Supporters of legal abortion say the reason abortion is declining is due to more widespread use of birth control and family planning education. Under Obamacare, millions more women have access to health insurance that includes birth control coverage without co-pays, says O’Connor.

The other advance in birth control has been more effective and long-lasting methods of avoiding unplanned pregnancies, including IUDs and implants that are injected under a women’s skin, says Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, an obstetrician and gynecologist who runs a Rhode Island practice that delivers 1,800 babies each year and administers birth control to patients.

Only about 3 percent of Planned Parenthood’s national patient caseload are admitted for abortions, a number that is close to the Rhode Island figure of about 5 percent, according to Planned Parenthood’s O’Connor.

"We’ve been around for 100 years and we’re not going anywhere,’’ said O’Connor, who says he expects Republicans to continue to try to defund the organization.

The anti-abortion movement will never shut down abortions, particularly for women of means. They can travel to countries where the procedure is legal. But life can be made difficult for the poor seeking safe abortions, which is currently happening in some red states that have passed restrictions on abortion clinics.

Rhode Island hasn’t had a pitched abortion battle since the mid-1980s, when a state Constitutional Convention put an anti-abortion amendment to voters at a statewide referendum. The anti-abortion proposal went down in a landslide after a vigorous campaign by both sides.  Depending on the Supreme Court, Rhode Island voters may someday face another abortion-related  referendum.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday morning on Rhode Island Public Radio at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 p.m. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our "On Politics" blog at