Do Pro-Life Policies Even Matter?


One of the persistent myths in the abortion debate is that the pro-life movement doesn’t actually do much to help save lives. You’ll sometimes hear this complaint from pro-lifers themselves who have cynically concluded that pro-life legislation and pro-life legislators don’t accomplish anything that matters to unborn babies. On the other side, pro-choice advocates will claim that the pro-life cause is all about controlling women and regulating sex and don’t do anything to reduce the number of abortions anyway. If there is one thing cynics on both sides can agree on it’s that pro-life policies don’t work.

Except, that’s not true.

In her widely read piece How I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement, atheist blogger Libby Anne tells of her deconversion from an evangelical student leader intent on “saving unborn babies  from being murdered” to a devout pro-choice feminist passionate about abortion rights. As an evangelical pro-life Christian there is much I find unpersuasive and inaccurate about the post (okay, pretty much all of it). But I want to take a closer look at one claim in particular, the suggestion that pro-life legislation just doesn’t work.

Libby Anne says her beliefs were rocked when she read in the New York Times that “A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.” Libby Anne goes on to cite this summary statement from the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute:

Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, the abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America—regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds.

The inference to be drawn from such a summary is clear: if you put restrictions on abortion you don’t save any babies, you only put the lives of women at risk who will continue to get abortions, but now in unsafe conditions. The problem with this inference is threefold.

1) The image of “back alley butchers” with coat hangers providing crude abortions to needy woman is a myth. According to the Bureau of Vital Statistics 39 women died from illegal abortion in the United States in 1972 (one year before Roe made abortion a constitutional right). The reason for the small number is that 90% of illegal abortion were performed by licensed physicians. It’s simply not true that women in this country were facing primitive conditions for their illegal abortions or that they likely would pursue risky abortions were the practice to be made illegal again.

2) The Guttmacher summary falls flat because it compares apples to oranges. To see how Africa compares to Europe tells us very little because the medical conditions, legal systems, and economic prosperity are so different. There are too many variables in play to conclude anything about Africa’s abortion rate compared to the West.

Russ Douthat explains:

Instead of looking at otherwise-similar countries that have variations in abortion law, the study compares rich regions (like Western Europe and North America) to poorer regions (like Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa). This makes it extremely difficult to tell whether the trend toward lower abortion rates in Western democracies really reflects the success of “safe, legal and rare,” as Saletan would have it, or whether it’s mainly a consequence of the enormous gap in wealth and development that still separates the West from the rest. (Many social ills tend to diminish with economic growth, and many pro-lifers would agree that a general increase in prosperity and human flourishing can do as much to reduce the abortion rate as any law or custom.) America is not analogous to Chad or Vietnam, to put it mildly, and if what we care about is reducing the American abortion rate, surely it makes more sense to look at the consequences of abortion restrictions in developed countries that already have widespread contraceptive access, rather than just comparing the developed world to developing countries and leaving it at that.

3) If we want to see what pro-life policies do or don’t do, the best case study is to compare individual states within our own country. Even a cursory look at state-by-state abortion rates casts doubt on a number of dubious assertions. For starters, if the best access to contraception and the most lenient abortion laws made abortion less frequent, you’d expect to see the “bluest” states with the lowest abortion rates and the “redest” states with the highest rates. But of the ten states with the highest abortion rate (RI, CT, NV, FL, CA, MD, D.C., NJ, NY, DE) all went blue in 2008 and 2012. Of the ten states with the lowest abortion rates (WY, MS, KY, ID, MO, WV, UT, WI, SD, NE), only one went blue in 2008 and 2012 (WI). Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but it does call into question the “rare” part of the “safe, legal, and rare” slogan.

If pro-life policies were largely ineffective, the Guttmacher Institute would not write about the “troubling trend” that more states are becoming “hostile to abortion rights.” Indeed, the map included in the article shows that the states with more restrictive abortion laws tend to be those with lower abortion rates. Again, when dealing with statistics we must be careful not to assume causation just because we find correlation. If abortion rates are going down in the United States (which they are), it could be for many reasons. It’s hard to say “A happened, therefore B” when C, D, E, and F also come into play. But a recent study suggests anti-abortion laws have resulted in decreasing abortion rates.

Here is Michael J. New writing in the States Politics & Policies Quarterly:

The number of abortions that were performed consistently increased throughout the 1970s and the 1980s (Brener et al. 2002). However, between 1990 and 2005, the number of legal abortions declined by 22.22 percent (Gamble et al. 2008; Koonin, Smith, and Ramick 1993). A number of different reasons for this decline are possible. However, one factor that played a role was the increased amount of anti-abortion legislation that was passed at the state level.

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s decisions in both Webster and Casey and the electoral success of anti-abortion candidates at the state level resulted in a substantial increase in the number of restrictions on abortion. By 2005, more states had adopted parental involvement laws and informed consent requirements (NARAL 1992, 2005). A comprehensive series of regressions provides evidence that these laws are correlated with declines in in-state abortion rates and ratios.

Furthermore, a series of natural experiments provides even more evidence about the effects of these restrictions on abortion. States where judges nullified anti-abortion legislation were compared to states where anti-abortion legislation went into effect. The results indicate that enforced laws result in significantly larger in-state abortion declines than nullified laws. Other regression results indicated that various types of legislation had disparate and predictable effects on different subsets of the population. For instance, parental involvement laws have a large effect on the abortion rate for minors and virtually no effect on the abortion rate for adults. These results provide further evidence that anti-abortion legislation results in declines in the number of abortions that take place within the boundaries of a given state.

The pro-life movement isn’t perfect, pro-life politicians even less so. But good can be done and has been done. Pro-life legislation reduces the number of abortions and saves lives. Cynics on both sides should take note.

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