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Rick Santorum Misses the Point on Abortion and Social Security

April 1, 2011

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) asserted earlier this week that Social Security’s future solvency is in jeopardy because of what he termed the U.S. “abortion culture.” Santorum is quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying, “Well, a third of all the young people in America are not in America today because of abortion." Leaving aside questions about whether Social Security is indeed facing insolvency, and, if it is, whether the major problem is that there are too few people to support it, there are a number of serious problems with Santorum’s statement.

First of all, he got the facts wrong. One-third of pregnancies do not end in abortion, as Santorum claims. In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, 22.4% of pregnancies (excluding those that result in miscarriages) ended in abortion.

More importantly, however, there are two main reasons why it is simply wrong to assume that every abortion reduces the U.S. population by one person: One, most women obtaining abortions are younger than 30 and are postponing childbearing. They typically want to wait to have children, or already have one child and don’t want another at that time. In either case, the abortion delays a birth, it does not eliminate it—and there is no impact on the overall population. Second, some abortions terminate pregnancies that would have ended in miscarriage, so again one cannot assume that every abortion would have otherwise resulted in a live birth.

But where Santorum really misses his mark is his failure to grasp a very simple idea: Most Americans want two children, and they try to time childbearing and space their births so that they have those children when they feel best capable of taking care of them. Overwhelmingly, this is accomplished through contraceptive use. When faced with an unwanted or mistimed pregnancy, some women decide to obtain an abortion. But the key point is that whatever demographic challenges Social Security may be facing, they are not due to abortion, but rather to the fact that most Americans desire—and generally achieve—small families.

The natural extension of Santorum’s purported solution for bolstering Social Security would be to require American women and couples to have more children than they want. Any possible scenario for achieving such a goal would be deeply disturbing—for example, banning both contraception and abortion, or trying to institute some form of mandatory three- or four-child policy through tax penalties or other punishments for those not complying.

In essence, what underpins Santorum’s argument is a lack of support for the ability of women and their partners to decide for themselves when to have children and how many children to have.

Click here for more information on:

Contraceptive Use in the United States

Abortion in the United States

Mistimed and unwanted births, from the CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth

Women who choose abortion because they want to postpone having a child or because they have completed their childbearing