NPR recently published “Do restrictive abortion laws actually reduce abortion? A global map offers insights.”
Correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff begins the article asking “In countries where abortion is illegal, are there fewer abortions?” and then continues “The question sounds simple, but it’s tough to answer.”
It’s not a tough question to answer, though. Doucleff answers it a few paragraphs further down (emphasis added):
In countries where abortion is broadly legal, use of contraception is quite high, Bearak and his team found. That’s because these countries tend to be richer and have strong health-care systems. “If you have a stronger health-care system and provide universal access to sexual reproductive health care, you would expect a lower unintended pregnancy rate,” Bearak says. And so the rate of unintended pregnancies tends to be low (between 53 to 66 unintended pregnancies annually per 1,000 women, ages 15 to 49). But the percentage of those pregnancies ending in abortion is higher because abortions tend to [be] accessible.
And the reverse is also true, per the next paragraph (emphasis added):
By contrast, in countries where abortions are heavily restricted, use of contraception tends to be low, his team found. And thus, the rate of unintended pregnancies is high (between 70 to 91 unintended pregnancies annually per 1,000 women, ages 15 to 49). But the percentage of those pregnancies ending in an abortion is low, likely because abortions aren’t easily accessible.
So abortion laws affect abortion accessibility and thus the number of abortions that actually happen. It’s notable, then, that in the very next paragraph, Doucleff tries to walk the conclusion back (again emphasis added):
So, Bearak says, in the end, highly restrictive abortion laws don’t correlate with a lower abortion rate. Instead, those laws correlate with more unintended pregnancies, which ultimately leads to an abortion rate comparable to what’s observed in countries where the procedure is accessible.
Much of Doucleff’s piece incorporates quotes from Jonathan Bearak, a researcher working for the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights advocacy group. On what basis does Bearak suggest abortion rates aren’t related to abortion laws?
There are two correlations happening internationally:
- Restrictive abortion laws are correlated with a lower percentage of unintended pregnancies aborted.
- Restrictive abortion laws are correlated with higher unintended pregnancy rates.
Bearak chooses to emphasize correlation #2 and not #1. But if the question we’re trying to answer is whether abortion laws decrease abortion rates, Bearak’s emphasis makes little sense.
An aside about correlation and causation:
We know correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation.
Sometimes two variables are correlated even though neither one causes the other. For example, on a monthly basis, ice cream sales are correlated with shark attacks, but that’s not because when you eat ice cream it irritates the sharks, or when sharks attack, people comfort themselves with ice cream. It’s because people are more likely to both buy ice cream and go swimming in the ocean in summer time.
Other times two variable are correlated because one does cause the other: shark attacks are correlated with hospital treatment for bite injuries – because sharks bite people.
When it comes to the two correlations involving abortion laws, #1 is a lot more likely to be causally linked than #2. In correlation #1, restrictive abortion laws cause fewer unintended pregnancies to be aborted because the laws make abortion more difficult to access (as Doucleff states in the article). But in correlation #2, restrictive abortion laws don’t cause more unintended pregnancies. The higher unintended pregnancy rate is caused by other factors, such as less access to contraception. Suggesting laws against abortion make no difference is implausible; suggesting they induce more people to get pregnant is nonsensical.
One of the foundational premises of abortion advocacy is that laws against abortion don’t decrease abortion. This is a pervasive talking point, but it’s a myth. When we control for other variables, such as the unintended pregnancy rate, we can see clearly that restrictive abortion laws both correlate with and cause lower abortion rates.
[Review research based in the United States showing abortion restrictions decrease abortion]