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Why is Montana’s abortion rate higher than Europe’s?

by Bruce Lohof
| April 4, 2021 12:00 AM

Unborn Montanans have been present and accounted for in the 67th session of the Montana Legislature. Eighteen abortion bills were submitted in 2020-2021; six of them were eventually introduced in the House, one in the Senate.

The “short titles” of these bills reveal an expected pattern: Bills to protect a “pain-capable unborn child” or to “adopt the Montana Born-Alive Protection Act,” a bill obliging pregnant women to receive specific “information before the performance of an abortion” and one to limit “abortion-inducing drug risk” in Montana.

The most comprehensive among them is a “Constitutional amendment to define person.” The amendment would declare that life begins “at the stage of fertilization or conception,” and it would reaffirm that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” If it’s ratified, a terminated pregnancy might become a first-degree murder. (Grimly, the draft amendment includes a carveout for expectant mothers who suffer a miscarriage: “No cause of action may arise as a consequence of harm caused to an unborn baby by an unintentional act of its mother.”)

Europeans who pay attention are perplexed. They’re aware of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which a pregnant woman’s right to choose abortion became settled law. Now, nearly a half century later, what’s this, they wonder.

Europe’s own laws pertaining to abortion trend toward “pro-choice” rather than “pro-life”: Malta continues to ban abortion and earlier this year Poland adopted more stringent restrictions. Elsewhere in the European Union, though, “pro-choice” has been the rule rather more than the exception. In Austria, for example, early-stage abortions are available on demand and later-stage procedures can be performed if the pregnancy threatens the woman’s health, or if the fetus develops an incurable problem, or if the patient is under the age of 14.

If you’re still with me, you’ve compared Vienna’s “pro-choice” posture with Helena’s “pro-life” agenda, and you’ve drawn the conclusion that abortion is more common in Austria than in Montana. So you’ll be surprised to learn that abortion rates in Montana are six times greater than they are in Austria.

America’s obsession with abortion, together with indifference to the procedure’s immediate predecessors, unplanned pregnancies and unprotected sex. Here, more than anywhere, the U.S. baffles Europe. Here, the European experience suggests, is where places like Montana are taking a wrong turn.

Reality checks. Americans deny – or decry – premarital sex, although the average American teenager has experienced intercourse by the age of 17. America’s reluctance to talk earnestly about sex education turns a serious subject into a high-school joke.

It’s important, of course, to avoid caricatures of permissive Europeans and puritanical Americans. But reality inevitably looms. A 2011 study published by the University of Chicago Press, “Not Under My Roof (salient subtitle: Parents, Teens, and the Culture of Sex), surveyed the length and breadth of sexual education in Dutch schools and the sexual attitudes of Dutch parents and their children. Comprehensive, compassionate, affirming, the book is a provocative read with which we wish Helena were more familiar.

Conditions in Montana are currently otherwise. In the Billings Public Schools (from which I graduated well before the introduction of sex education) “students develop an understanding that abstinence is the most effective means of preventing pregnancy.” In 2017 a University of Montana study of “Sex Education in Montana Schools” determined that “fully half of the respondents believed their teachers were uncomfortable teaching sex education and an overwhelming majority believed that their sex education classes were useless.”

If the European experience suggests that Montana needs less “pro-life” legislation and more wholesome sex education, Helena is moving in the wrong direction. Together with its several abortion bills, the Legislature is considering SB 99, which would “establish parameters for K-12 human sexuality education.” Among those parameters: Requiring school districts to inform parents whenever “events or courses on human sexuality will be held or taught,” and allowing parents to remove their children from human sexuality instruction. (This opt-the-child-out provision relaxes the bill’s original opt-in language, which would have included the student’s participation only with the permission of the parent.)

The bill’s “definition of human sexuality instruction” is broad enough to include – or, actually, to exclude – discussion of “intimate relationships, human sexual anatomy, sexual reproduction, sexually transmitted infections, sexual acts, sexual orientation, gender identity, abstinence, contraception, or reproductive rights and responsibilities.” Memo from school board to parent: If you don’t want your child to be exposed to any of these subject, send us a note. Ours is a less-said-the-better policy.

But look: Do you want to encourage emotional and sexual ignorance among teenagers, thereby enhancing the odds of unwanted pregnancy, and thereby aggravating the state’s abortion problems? SB 99 is the bill for you. Or do you want to reduce the state’s abortion rate by decreasing the number of unwanted pregnancies by enhancing the emotional and sexual sophistication of young people? If you’re a Montana legislator, the choice is yours.

Full disclosure. Like most of those legislators, I am male and, therefore, incapable of pregnancy. Also like many of them, neither spouse nor daughter nor friend has ever consulted me about her pregnancy and the “choice.” I want to believe that in such a position, I would choose life. Europe has learned to avoid abortion by avoiding unwanted pregnancy, and to avoid unwanted pregnancy by helping teenagers to understand themselves and each other. I realize that you may be asking: “Why should we pay attention to foreigners?” Thomas Jefferson answered it best, I think. In the Declaration of Independence he wrote about the “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

Plus, of course, we may learn something.

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Red Lodge and Vienna.