The Juno Effect

I'd like to elaborate a bit on an ABC News report last week that quoted me (correctly) as proffering a theory about something called "the Juno effect" as a way of thinking about recent abortion trends and abortion politics.

Last Thursday morning I found myself in the middle of a Roe v. Wade media firestorm of sorts. A Los Angeles Times reporter had contacted me about the newly released Guttmacher Institute report that indicates, among other things, a dramatic decline in the rate and number of abortions performed in the United States (25% fewer abortions per year since peaking in 1990).

I found myself quoted briefly toward the end of the LA Times article. By the time I reached my office that morning, there were requests on my desk for interviews from two radio shows (KCBS out of San Francisco and KPCC out of Los Angeles), from two national broadcast networks (ABC News and CBN News), and another major daily newspaper, Dziennik, out of Poland.

The reporters all wanted to know the possible political implications of the abortion decline.

I found myself hemming and hawing, because the Guttmacher data reveals some complicated trends that don't altogether admit of a tidy or easy explanation for this overall decrease. For instance, more than 30 states now feature laws that require mandatory counseling sessions before a woman undergoes an abortion, and yet some of the biggest drops in the abortion rate occurred in states that do not have these restrictions.

Also, the report reveals a few countervailing trends in terms of access: The number of U.S. abortion (surgical) providers continues to decline, yet the number of providers that provide only medication abortion services has increased pretty significantly. By 2005 (the last year covered by the report), such non-surgical medication abortions accounted for 13% of all abortions in the U.S.

What does it all mean? My longwinded explanation (left on the ABC News cutting room floor, understandably and thankfully) was this: absent any clear-cut exogenous variable or variables accounting for the decline, it behooves us to attribute, as an operational hypothesis, a good part of the drop-off to women's individual and aggregate choice, plain and simple. Greater numbers of women are, presumably, attending to contraceptive and preventative measures, and/or a greater number of impregnated women seem to be choosing to forgo abortion and carry to term. (Of course, all of those comparative speculations assume that the number of impregnated women would have remained steady otherwise--a big if). I teased those loose inferences and extrapolations out of data cited in the Guttmacher report showing that abortions are occurring earlier in the pregnancy: while nearly 90% of abortions in the U.S. take place in the first trimester, women are having abortions earlier and earlier in that period. 60% of all abortions occur within the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, and 30% take place at 6 weeks or earlier. To put my inferential leap or supposition more baldly: I see evidence in those numbers of women's deliberateness, intentionality, and agency--call that, choice. More women seem to be choosing, for whatever reasons, to undertake abortion at an earlier stage in their pregnancies. By parity of reason, one is tempted to discern similar acts of decisiveness in the abortion drop-off numbers.

(Of course, the study's other bleak data on access--nationwide, 87% of all counties have no abortion services--militates against my hypothesis about choice and voluntarism.)

The movie Juno--perhaps a sign-of-the-times flick--depicts a sixteen-year old girl who gets pregnant. She goes to an abortion clinic, first encounters outside a classmate who is a clinic protester, enters the clinic anyway, declines the receptionist's offer of a flavored condom, surveys the rest of the setting, and then turns away. She decides from there on to carry to term and to seek an acceptable way to put the baby up for adoption.

I want to say that we spectators aren't sure exactly why Juno decides against abortion. But in the terms of the film presented to us, the decision, deeply personal as well as socially implicated, is foremost and finally hers, precariously drawn though it may be. It isn't the protester who changes her view (though an incidental comment about fingernails factors in). It isn't some counseling session or parental notification mandate that accounts for her change of heart. It isn't a sonogram of a third tri-mester fetus. Access isn't an issue in the film. We are left, I dare say, with a sense of Juno's own resolve and agency, a maturity and perspective seemingly beyond her girlish years. Her decision could conceivably have gone, however, the other way. And the film doesn't continue onward nor end as a happy-ever-after, feel-good triumph, though we do leave impressed with something more than Juno's pluckishness.

My own view is that right-to-lifers should read the recent Guttmacher numbers (along with the recent Harris poll numbers showing 56% nationwide support for Roe v. Wade) and realize that entrusting and empowering women with their own reproductive decisions might be a more auspicious strategy for reducing overall abortion numbers than seeking to impose draconian and patronizing juridical and legislative bans and bars to abortion. After 35 years, they have failed to overturn Roe v. Wade; and in light of that failure, maybe they should change their outlook and approach. In short, appealing to women's "choice" could increasingly become the common ground--as well as the site of contestation (as opposed to the largely male courts and congresses)--between the otherwise antagonistic pro-choice and pro-life camps. How else to explain that such bitter adversaries are finding themselves in recent days sitting in the same theater applauding the same off-beat indie film that addresses the very topic about which they disagree so vehemently?

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