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Reproductive Health Information: Separating Fact from Fiction

Myth: The number of abortions could be reduced by making abortion illegal.

Not true. A recent study by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute, published in the medical journal, Lancet (October 13, 2007), found that the abortion rate has decreased more in developed countries where abortion is generally safe and legal than in developing countries where it is mostly illegal and unsafe. In addition, the abortion rate was almost the same in developed countries (26 per 1,000 women) and developing countries (29 per 1,000 women). Illegality does not stop abortions. Of the 42 million abortions worldwide in 2003, the vast majority — 35 million — took place in the developing world. Almost all unsafe abortions (97 percent) took place in developing nations. A spokeswoman from the International Women’s Health Coalition pointed out that, “The legal status of abortion has never dissuaded women and couples, who, for whatever reason, seek to end pregnancy.” See the full study (free registration required).

Regular access to effective contraception, as in the developed world, is the best way to reduce unplanned pregnancies and the need for abortion. Unfortunately, current U.S. policies restrict family planning assistance to foreign non-governmental clinics and agencies that perform or even discuss abortion or advocate liberalizing abortion laws. The result has been a loss of family planning services and less access to condoms in many developing countries — services that would help reduce the need for abortion. Learn more at the Population Action International Web site.

Myth: Abstinence-only sex education decreases the likelihood that teenagers will engage in sexual intimacy before marriage.

Early reports, based on surveys at the end of the first school year in abstinence-only programs, indicated that youth in abstinence-only education were significantly more supportive of abstinence than those in the control group who had not received this education. However, the findings of a nine-year study involving over 2,000 youth in four highly regarded abstinence education programs were released in April 2007. The study, authorized by the United States Congress and conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, followed the youth for five years. Researchers concluded that “youth in the program group were no more likely than control group youth to have abstained from sex and, among those who reported having had sex, they had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same mean age” (xvii). Abstinence-only education showed no “statistically significant impact on eventual behavior” (29). There was no statistical difference between the groups with regard to having been pregnant, gotten someone pregnant, or having a sexually transmitted disease (35).  Read the full report or the executive summary.

Myth: Sex education courses are more likely to result in teens having sex than in preventing sexual activity.

A study of sex education courses that include information about human sexuality, the prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and abstinence (“comprehensive” or “abstinence plus” courses) was published in 2001. According to its author, Dr. Douglas Kirby (former Director of Research, National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy), “… programs that emphasize abstinence as the safest approach, but also encourage those who are sexually active to use condoms and contraceptives do not increase sexual behavior; they do not do harm.” They do not hasten the initiation of first sex or increase the frequency of sex or the number of sexual partners. (P.O.V. Web site). Due to the many scientific studies that have reached this conclusion, the Surgeon General of the United States (2001) and virtually all major professional health associations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association, recommend comprehensive sexuality education. Some, such as the AMA, specifically oppose the use of abstinence-only education.

Myth:  When teens have true faith in Jesus they do not need sex education.

False: It is certainly true that the more important a teenager’s faith is to him or her and the more involved they are in their religious community, the less likely they are to engage in sexual intercourse. For example, 31 percent of 17-year-olds who are closely involved with their faith tradition have had sexual intercourse compared to 61 percent of all teens (Clapp, Helbert and Zizak, Faith Matters: Teenagers, Religion, and Sexuality, 2003: 37. See also Lyons, “Open the Door and See All the – Teenagers,” Gallup Poll: 2003 and Mark Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit, 2007). However, it is also true that religiously active teens are involved at significantly high levels in sexual intercourse (almost one-third of the 17-year-olds) and in other forms of sexual behavior: oral sex, fondling, nudity with the opposite sex, masturbation and kissing (Clapp, 48). Therefore, even religiously involved teens are at risk of pregnancy and contracting sexually transmitted diseases. As many as a half million children are sexually abused each year, most by people they know and trust, including church people (Stop It Now Web site.) Yet, most religiously active young people feel that their religious communities are inadequate in providing information and guidance on sexual issues (Clapp, 115). What teens need from their faith communities is sex education that provides accurate information, a solid foundation of values and help in developing interpersonal skills for healthy and responsible relationships.

Myth: The Bible is clear in its opposition to abortion.

There are no texts in the Bible that address directly the question of elective abortion. This is rather surprising because specific prohibitions of abortion were present among certain neighboring peoples and cultures. No such prohibition can be found in the Old or New Testaments. The appeal to biblical texts necessarily involves interpretation. None of the texts alone or together provides a single conclusive answer. (Paul D. Simmons, “Personhood, the Bible, and the Abortion Debate,” Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Educational Series, No. 3)

It is clear that Christians disagree about how biblical teachings apply to questions related to abortion. In its study in 1992, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) points to two quite different views. The first maintains that teachings about God as the Creator of all life and poetic language about life in the womb lead Christians to oppose abortion as an option.  The second emphasizes that women and men are created in the image of God and are entrusted with the responsibility to be faithful stewards of life in reproductive decisions; therefore, abortion is one of the choices they may conscientiously consider. (Problem Pregnancies and Abortion, 204th General Assembly (1992), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

The differences in these viewpoints cannot be resolved by appeal to specific biblical texts. Conscientious Christians continue to disagree about biblical interpretation, as they disagree also about the option of abortion itself. But it is inaccurate, as well as intolerant, to maintain that the Bible provides a single clear-cut answer to the complex dilemmas persons face when they are considering abortion.

Myth: Women who have an abortion are more likely to have emotional problems.

For decades some groups have insisted that women who have abortions are likely to experience a post-abortion syndrome similar to PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although there have been many attempts to document the increase in emotional problems, and even suicide, following an abortion, the most rigorous scientific research has failed to substantiate this belief. In 1989 the American Psychological Association (APA) thoroughly examined a wide range of data and concluded that nothing like post-abortion syndrome could be found (APA press release, January 18, 1989). Such a diagnosis is not recognized among medical and psychological professionals today.

While some women who have abortions may experience emotional stress, guilt, depression and regret, when interviewed most women express overwhelming relief and feelings of happiness (N.E. Adler, et al., American Psychologist, 1992). Furthermore, studies have found that the most important predictor of emotional health following an abortion is the mental state of the woman before an abortion. Women with high self-esteem before an abortion are likely to still have high self-esteem afterward. Research also shows that the emotional consequences for women who choose adoption are higher than for women who choose abortion. Having an abortion may be acute stress, while worrying about the fate of a child may lead to chronic, ongoing stress (N.F. Russo, in J.D. Butler’s Abortion, Medicine, and the Law, 1992). Any important life decision may involve some level of stress that can change over time.

As for suicide, stories can be found about depressed women going to extreme measures when they have been prevented from having an abortion, as well as when they have had one. The United States Office of Population funded a study in 2000 that called for better post-abortion care for women around the world. It contended that too many women receive poor-quality services that don’t address their multiple health needs, including counseling, family planning and services for post-abortion complications. Governments have been challenged repeatedly to improve women’s physical and mental health care following an abortion and link it to other reproductive health services (Frontiers in Reproductive Health Population Council, Washington, D.C., Program Brief #1, September 2000).

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has addressed this issue in a 2004 brochure entitled When Pregnancy Involves Loss. In it, we are reminded that there are multiple contexts in which women make abortion and adoption decisions, and “women may have conflicting emotions following the termination of a pregnancy or the placement of a child for adoption.” It is important to recognize that some people stigmatize all women who have abortions. Therefore, people need to resist messages that impede the healing process and fuel feelings of guilt and shame. Whatever decision a woman makes, “she deserves to know that she is created in the image of a loving God and is capable of making ethical decisions about her reproductive life” (from When Pregnancy Involves Loss).


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