[Today’s guest post by Candace Stewart is part of our paid blogging program.]
One of the most popular pro-choice arguments I’ve come across doesn’t have anything to do with the personhood of the unborn or bodily rights. Instead, many pro-choicers try to render philosophical and biological arguments moot by saying that anti-abortion laws (whether they be incremental pro-life laws such as those passed in various US states or total bans on elective abortions) just don’t work.
The source for this claim is nearly always a joint study done by WHO and the Guttmacher Institute (an explicitly pro-choice organization with former ties to Planned Parenthood) published in the Lancet. This study estimates abortion numbers and rates for women in different world regions. They claim to find that abortion rates are similar in regions where abortion is permitted on broad grounds (North America, Europe, etc.) and regions where it is largely illegal (Latin America and Africa). The only difference, the authors say, is that abortion is generally safe in regions where it is legal and unsafe in regions where it is illegal.
While I don’t doubt that illegal abortions are taking place in significant numbers in many developing countries, I do doubt the accuracy of many of Guttmacher’s estimates. It’s beyond the scope of this post to get into all the reasons why, but I’ll link here an admission by the UN (which tends to favor legalized abortion) that Guttmacher’s estimates are “quite speculative because data are missing from the large majority of countries.” (Note the study that the UN is referencing is an older one from 1999, but it was compiled by the same authors using the same methods, and those estimates are used as the basis for later estimates, so the UN’s statement still applies). Despite the speculative nature of such estimates and Guttmacher’s political dog in the fight, these numbers are often repeated uncritically by the media and even many pro-lifers take them at face value. Many people who are generally uncomfortable with legal abortion are convinced not to support banning it because of this study. In fact this argument was part of the reason (among others) that I was pro-choice (in the first trimester) for a few years, even though I was morally opposed to abortion.
About a year ago I started to question my former position on abortion and read a lot of pro-life material, and I did read some pro-life responses to the Lancet study.
Pro-life New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted in his columns that the study doesn’t compare like to like, and he points out that when comparing abortion rates between generally pro-life US states versus generally pro-choice states, pro-life states have significantly lower abortion rates (this holds even when accounting for women that cross state lines to obtain abortions). This piqued my interest because it contradicted the finding of the Lancet study: that laws restricting abortion weren’t associated with lower abortion rates. Now correlation isn’t necessarily causation, but obviously US states are much more directly comparable to each other than Uganda is to Germany. So I decided to do some research into this question. Rather than comparing different countries, I figured the best way to measure the effectiveness of abortion laws was to compare abortion rates in that country (or state/region) before and after either legalization of abortion or a restrictive law. I also wanted to be sure to find studies that weren’t conducted by pro-life organizations to eliminate any possible bias in favor of anti-abortion laws. Some of these I came across while reading pro-life blogs, but most I found while searching Google Scholar.
This list is what I feel are the best studies showing the effectiveness of different types of anti-abortion laws. I will just summarize the abstract next to the link.
Effects of Abortion Legalization
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1508542/ — States that legalized abortion before Roe experienced fertility declines as a result
http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/harwpaper/9910.htm — Found that women who became pregnant before Roe were far less likely to abort a pregnancy compared to women who became pregnant after Roe
- https://www.guttmacher.org/journals/psrh/2009/03/abortion-or-pill-access-associated-lower-birthrates-among-minors — Abortion legalization was more instrumental in lowering teenage birth rates in the 60s/70s than increased contraception access
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11990636 — Decrease in infants relinquished for adoption in states that legalized abortion pre-Roe
- http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ecin.12017/full — Teenage childbearing decreased as a result of pre and post Roe legalized abortion
- https://link.springer.com/article/10.1353/dem.0.0026 — Another study finding that pre-Roe legal abortion caused a drop in teenage birthrates
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4050978/ — Restrictive abortion laws enacted in the 19th century were estimated to have decreased abortions and increased births
- http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1728-4465.2016.00060.x/full — Fertility in Mexico City decreased as a result of abortion legalization, after accounting for prior trends and trends in surrounding areas
- http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304387813001740 — Closeness to a newly opened legal abortion center in Nepal decreased chances of a subsequent birth among women who had a child before abortion was legalized
- http://www.economics.uni-linz.ac.at/papers/2016/wp1606.pdf — Legalization of abortion in Uruguay caused a decline in births from unplanned pregnancies
- https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/694293?journalCode=jpe& — Found that access to abortion after Roe was estimated to have caused a 34% reduction in first birth, 19% reduction in first marriage and 63% reduction in shotgun marriages in the 1970s. According to this study, access to contraception had little effect on these trends and it was mostly access to abortion that drove family formation changes.
Effects of Restricted Public Funding for Abortion
- http://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.71.1.77 — Found that restrictions in public funding decreased abortions, no evidence that they increased illegal abortions
- https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1020078406216 — When public funding for abortion ran out of money in North Carolina, it decreased abortions and increased births
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19069064 — Found that public funding and proximity to a clinic influences abortion decisions
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8135922 — Finds that Michigan’s public funding of abortion restriction increased births
- https://lozierinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/OP_hyde_9.28.3.pdf — Analysis of several peer-reviewed studies on the impact of the Hyde Amendment (which prevents federal Medicaid funds from directly funding abortion) estimating two million people were born as a result of the amendment since 1976 (note this study was conducted by an anti-abortion organization but uses unbiased studies in the analysis)
Waiting Period/Counseling Effects
- http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/418044 — Mississippi’s two visit waiting period law decreased resident abortion rates
- http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1083318896700074 — Counseling before abortion in Singapore decreased the abortion rate
- http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1049386716300603 — Utah’s 72 hour waiting period resulted in fewer counseled women obtaining abortions
Effects of Declining/Increasing Abortion Facilities
- https://www.guttmacher.org/journals/psrh/1997/03/effects-economic-conditions-and-access-reproductive-health-services-state — Fewer abortion providers and more restrictions were estimated to account for a portion of the decline in the rate from 1988-92
- http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1465-7287.1996.tb00616.x/abstract — Finds that regions with longer travel distances to abortion clinics have lower abortion rates and pregnancy rates
- https://baylor-ir.tdl.org/baylor-ir/handle/2104/9884 — HB2 law in Texas resulted in an increase in births and decrease in abortions
- http://www.jstor.org/stable/2134397?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents — More travel distance to a clinic lessens chance of abortion
- https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/380475 — Abortion and pregnancy rates decreased after modest restrictions were enacted in Eastern Europe in the 80s and 90s
- http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0046958017700944 — Another study on HB2 showing lower abortion rates, accounting for travel outside the state
- http://www.nber.org/papers/w23366 — Yet another HB2 analysis
- https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01084114?LI=true — Fewer abortion restrictions and more facilities lead to lower fertility rates
Note that many of these studies find effects of abortion laws on fertility (lower when abortion legalized and higher when abortion is restricted) which means that it can’t be argued that unreported illegal abortion can make up the difference in abortion rates. If abortion restrictions don’t change the rate of abortion, then abortion laws shouldn’t have any measurable effect on fertility.
I think there are enough studies here to refute the notion that abortion laws don’t work. This argument is very prominent among pro-choicers and it has proven influential in convincing people that are morally opposed to abortion not to oppose it legally. But it’s simply a myth. Laws do matter, abortion availability does matter, and pro-lifers should not be deceived by pro-choice lobbying groups to give up the legal fight against abortion.