Abortions and Unwed Mothers, by the Numbers

Republicans consider themselves the party of family values. Leaving out issues that are directly religious, if there are two social issues Republicans have claimed as their own since Ronald Reagan ran for President, they are unwed mothers and abortions. The first issue may have hit its peak when Dan Quayle found himself arguing with Murphy Brown, but its still potent in some parts of the country. Abortion, of course, is the quintessential single-voter issue in the US.

Those for whom such issues are the most important issue, of course, will vote Republican. But have they been well served? Data on unmarried mothers is available from the Federal Governments’ Forum on Child and Family Statistics from 1980 to 2004, and data on abortions is available from the Census going to 2002.

First, the unmarried mother issue….

The yearly percentage change in the unmarried live birthrate (i.e., number of births per 1000 women) from the year before a President took office to his last full year in office:


The yearly percentage change in the percentage of births to unmarried mothers (i.e., births to unmarried women as a share of total births) from the year before a President took office to his last full year in office:


The data indicates that the unmarried birthrate rose during the Reagan, GHW, and GW administrations, and fell during the Clinton administration. The percentage of total births due to unmarried women rose during all four administrations, but rose the least under the Clinton administration.

As to abortions…. the yearly percentage in the rate of abortions per 1,000 women fell throughout, but it fell the most during the Clinton administration:


The yearly percentage change in the rate of abortions per 1,000 live births also fell the most during the Clinton administration:


Thus, abortions fell throughout the period, but they fell the most during the Clinton administration.

If I worked for the RNC and I had to explain the results, I would say that there’s a long lag time between a President’s efforts and when those efforts pay off – hence, the efforts of Reagan and GHW paid off during the Clinton era, but Clinton’s lack of effort began to sow problems as soon as he left office.

My bet… a part of this is due to the economy’s performance under Clinton. Both abortions and children born out of wedlock are probably less likely when people are more hopeful about the future. I also suspect the President sets a national mood, in part by using the bully pulpit, and in part by where he puts money and resources. (From a family values perspective, Clinton’s negatives would relate to greater permissiveness… while teen cigarette use, alcohol use, and drug use all dropped under Reagan, GHW, and GW, they all increased under Clinton.)

But I know this… if I worked for the Democrats, I’d make sure one-issue voters saw these numbers in the next few weeks, and again in 2008.

PS. My spreadsheets are available to anyone who wants them.

Update. Corrected some of the data which had previously been copied from the wrong cells in the spreadsheet. My apologies.