Tag Archives: abortion/reproduction

Does Abortion Cause Infanticide?

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Does “the abortion culture” cause infanticide?  That is, does legalizing the aborting of a fetus in the womb create a cultural, moral climate where people feel free to kill newborn babies?

It’s not a new argument.  I recall a 1998 Peggy Noonan op-ed in the Times, “Abortion’s Children,” arguing that kids who grew up in the abortion culture are “confused and morally dulled.”*  Earlier this week, USA Today ran an op-ed by Mark Rienzi repeating this argument in connection with the Gosnell murder conviction.

Rienzi argues that the problem is not one depraved doctor.  As the subhead says:

The killers are not who you think. They’re moms.

Worse, he warns, infanticide has skyrocketed.

While murder rates for almost every group in society have plummeted in recent decades, there’s one group where murder rates have doubled, according to CDC and National Center for Health Statistics data — babies less than a year old.

Really? The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports has a different picture.

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Many of these victims were not newborns, and Rienzi is talking about day-of-birth homicides — the type killing Dr. Gosnell was convicted of, a substitute for abortion.  Most of these, as Rienzi says are committed not by doctors but by mothers.  I make the assumption that the method in most of these cases is smothering.  These deaths show an even steeper decline since 1998.

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Where did Rienzi get his data that rates had doubled?  By going back to 1950.

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The data on infanticide fit with his idea that legalizing abortion increased rates of infanticide.  The rate rises after Roe v. Wade (1973) and continues upward till 2000.

But that hardly settles the issue. Yes, as Rienzi says, “The law can be a potent moral teacher.”  But many other factors could have been affecting the increase in infanticide, factors much closer to actual event — the mother’s age, education, economic and family circumstances, blood lead levels, etc.

If Roe changed the culture, then that change should be reflected not just in the very small number of infanticides but in attitudes in the general population.  Unfortunately, the GSS did not ask about abortion till 1977, but since that year, attitudes on abortion have changed very little.   Nor does this measure of “abortion culture” have any relation to rates of infanticide.

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Moreover, if there is a relation between infanticide and general attitudes about abortion, then we would expect to see higher rates of infanticide in areas where attitudes on abortion are more tolerant.

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The South and Midwest are most strongly anti-abortion, the West Coast and Northeast the most liberal.  So, do these cultural difference affect rates of infanticide?

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Well, yes, but it turns out the actual rates of infanticide are precisely the opposite of what the cultural explanation would predict.  The data instead support a different explanation of infanticide: Some state laws make it harder for a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.  Under those conditions, more women will resort to infanticide.  By contrast, where abortion is safe, legal, and available, women will terminate unwanted pregnancies well before parturition.

The absolutist pro-lifers will dismiss the data by insisting that there is really no difference between abortion and infanticide and that infanticide is just a very late-term abortion. As Rienzi puts it:

As a society, we could agree that there really is little difference between killing a being inside and outside the womb.

In fact, very few Americans agree with this proposition. Instead, they do distinguish between a cluster of a few fertilized cells and a newborn baby. I know of no polls that ask about infanticide, but I would guess that a large majority would say that it is wrong under all circumstances.  But only perhaps 20% of the population thinks that abortion is wrong under all circumstances.

Whether the acceptance of abortion in a society makes people “confused and morally dulled” depends on how you define and measure those concepts.  But the data do strongly suggest that whatever “the abortion culture” might be, it lowers the rate of infanticide rather than increasing it.

* I had trouble finding Noonan’s op-ed at the Times Website.  Fortunately, then-Rep. Talent (R-MO) entered it into the Congressional Record.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Health Care Costs, Greed, and “Socialism”

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

The Washington Post has provided some data on medical costs across a selection of countries (Argentina, Canada, Chile, and India in grey; France, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain in blue; and the U.S. in red). The data reveal that American health care is very expensive compared to other countries.

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No wonder the US spends twice as much as France on health care.  In 2009, the U.S. average was $8000 per person; in France, $4000.  (Canada came in at $4800).  Why do we spend so much?  Ezra Klein quotes the title of a 2003 paper by four health-care economists:  “it’s the prices, stupid.”

And why are US prices higher?  Prices in the other OECD countries are lower partly because of what U.S. conservatives would call socialism – the active participation of the government.  In the U.K. and Canada, the government sets prices.  In other countries, the government uses its Wal-Mart-like power as a huge buyer to negotiate lower prices from providers.  (If it’s a good thing for Wal-Mart to bring lower prices for people who need to buy clothes, why is it a bad thing for the government to bring lower prices to people who need to buy, say, an appendectomy? I could never figure that out.)

There may also be cultural differences between the U.S. and other wealthy countries, differences about whether greed, for lack of a better word, is good.  How much greed is good, and in what realms is it good?  Klein quotes a man who served in the Thatcher government:

Health is a business in the United States in quite a different way than it is elsewhere.  It’s very much something people make money out of. There isn’t too much embarrassment about that compared to Europe and elsewhere.

So we Americans roll along, paying several times what others pay for medical procedures, doctor visits, and drugs.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Public Opinion about Abortion 40 Years after Roe v. Wade

Yesterday was the anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark case establishing women’s right to an abortion (though not an unrestricted right).

The Pew Research Center released some data on current public knowledge and opinion about abortion in the U.S. They found that well under half (44%) of younger people — those under 30 — knew what Roe v. Wade was about. A quarter said they didn’t know, and a third thought it was about another issue. This was a much lower level of familiarity than older age groups:

Abortion is still certainly a contentious issue, but it may not be quite the galvanizing cultural flashpoint it once was. Indeed, fewer people seem to see it as a critical issue. A growing percent of respondents say that abortion isn’t all that important — now over half say so:

That seems to indicate a lessening of the intensity of the culture war surrounding abortion. That could mean less intensity in opposition to abortion (most respondents thought it should be legal, though many personally thought it was morally wrong), but it may also lead to less resistance to the types of restrictions on clinics that leave abortion technically legal, but so difficult to access that it’s a hollow legality.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Poverty Poses a Bigger Risk to Pregnancy Than Age

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and The Atlantic.

The problem of income inequality often gets forgotten in conversations about biological clocks.

The dilemma that couples face as they consider having children at older ages is worth dwelling on, and I wouldn’t take that away from Judith Shulevitz’s essay in the New Republic, “How Older Parenthood Will Upend American Society,” which has sparked commentary from Katie RoipheHanna RosinRoss Douthat, and Parade, among many others.

The story is an old one — about the health risks of older parenting and the implications of falling fertility rates for an aging population — even though some of the facts are new. But two points need more attention. First, the overall consequences of the trend toward older parenting are on balance positive, both for women’s equality and for children’s health. And second, social-class inequality is a pressing — and growing — problem in children’s health, and one that is too easily lost in the biological-clock debate.

Older mothers

First, we need to distinguish between the average age of birth parents on the one hand versus the number born at advanced parental ages on the other. As Shulevitz notes, the average age of a first-time mother in the U.S. is now 25. Health-wise, assuming she births the rest of her (small) brood before about age 35, that’s perfect.

Consider two measures of child well-being according to their mothers’ age at birth. First, infant mortality:

(Source: Centers for Disease Control)

Health prospects for children improve as women (and their partners) increase their education and incomes, and improve their health behaviors, into their 30s. Beyond that, the health risks start accumulating, weighing against the socioeconomic factors, and the danger increases.

Second, here is the rate of cognitive disability among children according to the age of their mothers at birth, showing a very similar pattern:

(Source: Calculations made for my working paper)

Again, the lowest risks are to those born when their parents are in their early 30s, a pattern that holds when I control for education, income, race/ethnicity, gender, and child’s age.

When mothers older than age 40 give birth, which accounted for 3 percent of births in 2011, the risks clearly are increased, and Shulevitz’s story is highly relevant. But, at least in terms of mortality and cognitive disability, an average parental age in the late 20s and early 30s is not only not a problem, it’s ideal.

Unequal health

But the second figure above hints at another problem — inequality in the health of parents and children. On that purple chart, a college graduate in her early 40s has the same risk as a non-graduate in her late 20s. And the social-class gap increases with age. Why is the rate of cognitive disabilities so much higher for the children of older mothers who did not finish college? It’s not because of their biological clocks or genetic mutations, but because of the health of the women giving birth.

For healthy, wealthy older women, the issue of aging eggs and genetic mutations from fathers’ run-down sperm factories are more pressing than it is for the majority of parents, who have not graduated college.

If you look at the distribution of women having babies by age and education, it’s clear that the older-parent phenomenon is disproportionately about more-educated women. (I calculated these from the American Community Survey, because age-by-education is not available in the CDC numbers, so they are a little different.)

Most of the less-educated mothers are giving birth in their 20s, and a bigger share of the high-age births are to women who’ve graduated college — most of them married and financially better off. But women without college degrees still make up more than half of those having babies after age 35, and the risks their children face have more to do with high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and other health conditions than with genetic or epigenetic mutations. Preterm births, low birth-weight, and birth complications are major causes of developmental disabilities, and they occur most often among mothers with their own health problems.

Most distressing, the effects of educational (and income) inequality on children’s health have been increasing. Here are the relative odds of infant mortality by maternal education, from 1986 to 2001, from a study in Pediatrics. (This compares the odds to college graduates within each year, so anything over 1.0 means the group has a higher risk than college graduates.)

This inequality is absent from Shulevitz’s essay and most of the commentary about it. She writes, of the social pressure mothers like her feel as they age, “Once again, technology has given us the chance to lead our lives in the proper sequence: education, then work, then financial stability, then children” — with no consideration of the 66 percent of people who have reached their early 30s with less than a four-year college degree. For the vast majority of that group, the sequence Shulevitz describes is not relevant.

In fact, if Shulevitz had considered economic inequality, she might not have been quite as worried about advancing parental age. When she worries that a 35-year-old mother has a life expectancy of just 46 more years — years to be a mother to her child — the table she consulted applies to the whole population. She should breathe a little bit easier: Among 40-year-old white college graduates women are expected to live an average extra five years compared with those who have a high school education only.

When it comes to parents’ age versus social class, the challenges are not either/or. We should be concerned about both. But addressing the health problems of parents — especially mothers — with less than a college degree and below-average incomes is the more pressing issue — both for potential lives saved or improved and for social equality.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Women, Sexuality, and the HPV Vaccine

Cross-posted at Sociology Lens.

A number of researchers suggest that the marketing and advertising of Gardasil has been aimed at girls and women instead of boys and men. In this post I discuss two contradictory messages aimed at women through these advertisements.

The first type of ad focused around the protection of young girls. The makers of Gardasil imply that being a good parent means vaccinating your daughter and therefore protecting her from cervical cancer (an observation also made here at Sociological Images). For example, one advertisement read, “How do you help your daughter become one less life affected by cervical cancer?” Another advertisement had a similar sentiment, stating “Your daughter can’t possibly know the importance of the cervical cancer vaccine, but thankfully, she has her mother” (source).

This narrative of protectionism is not surprising. In other contexts, like sex education debates, the discourse about adolescent sexuality, and in particular, girls’ sexuality, reveals a desire to protect their “innocence.”

The other type of ad moves away from the narrative of protectionism and focuses on empowerment and choice. One ad stated, “I chose to get vaccinated after my doctor to me the facts” (source). Another ad read, “I chose to get vaccinated because my dreams don’t include cervical cancer” (source).

Instead of focusing on the ways in which girls and women can be protected, the ads suggest that girls and women need to protect themselves. It seems like the advertising department at Merck (the makers of Gardasil) recognize that they needed another strategy if they wanted to appeal to young women who feel empowered about their sex lives.

These two strategies are opposed to one another. One strategy suggests that girls and women need to be protected, while the other strategy relies on the ability of girls and women to be active and educated decision makers. Merck is tapping into two gendered narratives in order to sell to as many people as possible. This is, of course, the way that advertising works. But it does reveal the different, and sometimes contradictory, cultural ideas about women’s sexuality, ideas that advertisers will draw on in order to make a profit.

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Cheryl Llewellyn is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Stony Brook University.  She writes for Sociology Lens, where you can read her post about the feminization of the Gardasil.

Framing Breastfeeding: Grumet Graces Another Cover

Along with “work/life balance” and other tired topics, an evergreen issue in the media remains the controversies surrounding breastfeeding.  Less than six months ago, Jamie Lynne Grumet lit up the blogosphere by posing for the cover of TIME Magazine while breastfeeding her standing toddler.  Outcry included pronouncements that the image was almost pornographic, psychologically damaging to her child, and exploitative of her white, twenty-something good looks.  The drama of the image worked as the magazine flew off shelves and was named one of the top ten most controversial covers by the New York Daily News.

Within the “lactivist” community there seemed to be double-edged concern — on one hand, glee that an image of a breastfeeding woman was so publicly displayed — on the other, anger that the image so clearly did not depict the intimacy and bonding between mother and child that they insist breastfeeding promotes.

Sensing an opportunity to “set the record straight” as well as launch their own uptick in cover attention, the nonprofit quarterly magazine Pathways to Family Wellness persuaded Grumet to pose for them, this time surrounded by her husband, adopted son, and cradling her nursing naked now 4-year-old child in her lap.  The inclusion of other family members changes the image from one of solo defiance to a message about her family system.  On the cover, Grumet still looks directly at the camera, not at her feeding child, but her glance is far from defiant.

Grumet agreed to pose again in order to send a different message about breastfeeding, one she preferred.  Grumet has said that this image portrays toddler breastfeeding more realistically, “incorporating the husband and siblings.” Yet, the multicultural family portrait has its own sense of staging.   The idyllic family pile-on seems hardly part of everyday life, much less every feeding.  Both images – part of the wider debate over breastfeeding — are carefully crafted to tell a particular story.

Some critics have mentioned that while Grumet’s intention may have been to reframe the image of breastfeeding, perhaps unwittingly again, she has contributed to the fanning of the flames around this issue. Others have accused her of “milking the moment.”   The breastfeeding support website KellyMom tracked down the three other mothers who were all photographed for the TIME cover. KellyMom interviewed them about their experiences during the shoot, then reaction to, and fallout from the cover.  Unfortunately, given the nature of the debate, individual women can often seem like pawns in these ever-intermittent media storms.

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Elline Lipkin, PhD, is a Research Scholar with UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women.  She is the author of Girls’ Studies and The Errant Thread, recipient of the Kore Press First Book Award for Poetry. She tweets at @girlsstudies.

How Are Women Voting? And Why?

Nate Silver, the statistics guru behind FiveThirtyEight, is predicting that the gender gap in tomorrow’s election will be “near historic highs.”   According to Silver’s averaging of recent poll data, Obama has a 9-point lead among women, Romney has the same size lead among men.

Women haven’t always leaned Democratic.  The trend started in the 1990s, as data at Mother Jones reveals:

Single women are especially likely to vote Democratic.  Seventy percent voted for Obama in 2008:

A concern for reproductive rights, especially in light of recent Republican comments, are likely a big driver of women’s retreat from the political right.  Their concerns very well may swing the election.  In a poll of swing states, Gallup found that abortion topped the list of concerns for women; it didn’t make men’s top five:

It will be interesting to see how long the Republicans will hold onto positions unfriendly to women’s reproductive options.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Rape and Other “Gifts from God”

Cross-posted at Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

During a debate this past Tuesday, Indiana Republican senate nominee, Richard Mourdock, made the case against the rape exception for abortions: “I’ve struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

So according to Mourdock, God intends for rape to happen, and the outcome of rape is a gift from God.

What puzzles me is how Mourdock’s rape enthusiast comments fit with Missouri Republican senate candidate Todd Akin’s recent comments that “legitimate rape” (read“forcible rape”) rarely leads to pregnancy because, ”If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Mourdock and Akin’s beliefs, when considered together, produce a bizarre philosophy. I would like to know: Why would God create female bodies that reject God’s “gifts”? And if women don’t get pregnant from “forcible rape,” does that mean that God doesn’t intend ”forcible rapes”? Put another way, does God only intend certain types of rape, you know, the ones that come with “the gift”?

One-in-five Americans agree with Mourdock and Akin’s abortion stance. Razib Khan’sanalysis of the General Social Survey shows that 20% of Americans think abortion should be illegal in cases of rape. Republicans with lower levels of education who identify as extremely conservative and believe the Bible is the word of God are more likely than other Americans to hold this belief.

For Mourdock, Akin, and more than 50 million other Americans, God truly does work in mysterious ways.

Caroline Heldman is a professor of politics at Occidental College. You can follow her at her blog and on Twitter and Facebook.