Abortion is one of the biggest hot button issues in the United States and has been for many years. I personally come down on the pro-choice side of the debate, though my intention here is not to initiate a debate about abortion itself, but rather to address a particular argument I have seen put out by some in the anti-choice crowd.
The gist of this particular argument was expressed not too long ago in the Letters to the Editor section of the December 10, 2008 issue of The New York Times by one Elinor Hite of Carrolton, Texas:
"A nation that runs out of people cannot perform the activities of a sophisticated society.
We have a shortage of primary care doctors. There are other skilled-worker shortages. You cannot kill the future population of a nation and then wonder why that nation does not have the people it needs to do the jobs it requires to function.
Our nation needs to face up to the 48 million lives lost through abortion since 1973. I think at least some of that number would have become the skilled people we need now and will need even more as our population ages."
In a nutshell (with the emphasis on "nut"), Mrs. Hite is treating pregnancy as a form of national service, in which women dutifully crank out babies to provide the country with a future labor force.
But the implications of her assertions aside, Mrs. Hite is just plain wrong on the facts. First, let's look at the big picture. In 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade, the population of the United States was over 203,302,000. The population of the United States today, some 35 years after Roe v. Wade, according to the United States Census Bureau, is nearly 306,000,000. So while Hite is decrying some 48 million people who were never born, the population of the United States has increased by nearly 100 million since Roe!
Hite also portrays the 48 million number as a zero-sum game. In other words, she assumes that if all the women who have had abortions were instead forced to carry their pregnancies to term that we would then have had a net gain of 48 million people plus their descendants. But that is not necessarily the case. It is safe to assume that a significant percentage of women who have had abortions in the last 35 years have went on to have children later on in their lives. However, if these women were prevented from terminating their pregnancies earlier in their lives, they might have ended up having fewer children in the future. That means that some of the people alive today would not be alive if abortion were not legal. (Emphasis mine)
Regarding the shortage of primary care physicians that Hite decries, it can take seven to eight years to earn a medical degree. When you consider that Hite's phantom children who were aborted within a year of Roe would have only graduated high school in about 1992, the small fraction of them who would have gone on and earned a medical degree would have only entered the medical profession within the last 8 years. But that still does not address the problem of the shortage of primary care physicians.
The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that "[p]rimary care specialties have lost their appeal to U.S. medical school graduates, and specific primary care specialties are seeing young physicians look to more lucrative sub-specialization." According to Gail Baldwin, M.D., medical director of the Lake Superior Community Health Center in Duluth, Minn., public and private payment rates for primary care services lag behind those paid for services provided by many other specialties, discouraging physicians from pursuing a career in family medicine. So, the problem is not a shortage of doctors so much as a lack of incentive for medical school graduates to go into primary care practice.
Furthermore, Hite does not seem to realize that if her scenario of an extra 48 million children being born became reality, it would have exacerbated the labor shortage she bewails. These extra children, ironically, would have required an increase in the number of pediatric physicians, not to mention the building of more schools, and the hiring of more teachers and support staff. Where would they have come from?
Well, it just so happens that a good chunk of our labor force within the last two decades has come from abroad. From the report Rise, Peak and Decline: Trends in U.S. Immigration 1992-2004, the Pew Hispanic Center notes that "the foreign-born population grew from 9.6 million in 1970 to 19.8 million in 1990. In the last decade of the 20th century the numbers jumped dramatically by 57% to 31.1 million in Census 2000." From 2001 through 2007, according to the 2007 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, annual levels of immigration have for the most part exceeded one million. So immigration alone has virtually cancelled out Hite's missing 48 million, not even counting the American born descendants of post-1973 immigrants. Furthermore, unlike those missing 48 million, most immigrants have had the costs of their education borne from their countries of origin rather than by the American tax payer. My own wife is an example of this. She was able to immigrate to the United States in 1990 owing to a temporary nursing visa program, which enabled her to immediately participate in our labor force and contribute to our tax base. Of course, my opinion in this regard is highly biased, but it is clear that my wife and other immigrants like her represent a net gain for the United States.
One can of course object to abortion on moral grounds, and it is not my intention to get into that topic with this particular post, but I submit that Hite's argument, which is that we have a labor shortage in this country because of the selfishness of women who have had abortions, is either ignorant or dishonest.