Second, politics is the art of the possible. During the eight years of the Reagan presidency, the number of legal abortions increased by more than 5 percent; during the eight years of the Clinton presidency, the number dropped by 36 percent. The overall abortion rate (calculated as the number of abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44) was more or less stable during the Reagan years, but during the Clinton presidency, it dropped by 11 percent.
There are many reasons for this shift. Yet surely the traditional Democratic concern with the social safety net makes it easier for pregnant women to make responsible decisions and for young life to flourish; among the most economically disadvantaged, abortion rates have always been and remain the highest. The world’s lowest abortion rates are in Belgium and the Netherlands, where abortion is legal but where the welfare state is strong. Latin America, where almost all abortions are illegal, has one of the highest rates in the world.
None of this is to argue that abortion should be acceptable. History will judge our society’s support of abortion in much the same way we view earlier generations’ support of torture and slavery—it will be universally condemned. The moral condemnation of abortion, however, need not lead to the conclusion that criminal prosecution is the best way to limit the number of abortions. Those who view abortion as the most significant issue in this campaign may well want to supplement their abstract desire for moral rectitude with a more realistic focus on how best to ensure that fewer abortions take place.