In recent weeks there has been a flurry of articles by religious leaders arguing that voters should consider issues besides abortion when voting in the 2004 election. Some have even argued that a president who supports abortion rights may better be able to advance the goals of the pro-life movement. In a New York Times editorial, Mark Roche–the dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame–argues that the abortion rate went down under President Clinton, but increased under President Reagan. Dr. Glen Harold Stassen offers a similar argument in Sojourners.
Most of these authors attempt to make one of two points: either a) that there is little that elected officials can do to stop abortion through legislation, or b) that the pro-life movement has not reaped any real benefits from supporting candidates who oppose abortion. As such, voters should place greater emphasis on other issues. However, a careful analysis of the data from the 1980s and 1990s indicates that these arguments are flawed. In fact, the success of pro-life candidates has resulted in real reductions in the abortion rate.
For instance, the decline in the abortion rate during the 1990s had virtually nothing to do with policies enacted by President Clinton, and much to do with the sharp increase in pro-life legislation that was enacted at the state level:
In 1992, virtually no states were enforcing informed-consent laws; by 2000, 27 states had informed-consent laws in effect.
In 1992, no states had banned or restricted partial-birth abortion; by 2000, twelve states had bans or restrictions in effect.
In 1992, only 20 states were enforcing parental-involvement statutes; by 2000, 32 states were enforcing these laws.
How do we know that these laws had an impact? A comprehensive study by the Heritage Foundation sheds some light on this important question. The study examines state abortion data for every year from 1985 to 1999. Holding constant a variety of economic and demographic factors, the Heritage study examines the impact of four common types of pro-life legislation: parental-involvement laws, Medicaid-funding restrictions, informed-consent laws, and partial-birth-abortion bans.
The findings indicate that each of these four types of legislation resulted in reductions in state abortion rates. Restrictions on Medicaid funding of abortions had the largest and most statistically significant impact. The enactment of informed-consent laws resulted in statistically significant reductions as well.
So what generated this increase in pro-life legislation? There are two primary factors and both directly result from the election of pro-life candidates. First, the Supreme Court nominees of Presidents Reagan and Bush gave state level pro-life legislation greater legal protection in their Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision in 1992.
Many in the right-to-life movement were disappointed that the Supreme Court did not use Casey as an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, in Casey the Supreme Court found constitutional some of the policies contained in Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act. As such, this decision did give pro-life legislators at the state level more freedom to enact laws designed to protect the unborn.
Prior to Casey, the only laws that consistently withstood judicial scrutiny were parental-involvement laws and Medicaid-funding restrictions. After Casey, informed-consent laws received constitutional protection. Informed-consent laws require women seeking abortions to receive information about fetal development, the health risks involved with obtaining an abortion, and public and private sources of support for single mothers. Furthermore, after Casey many state-level partial-birth-abortion bans were upheld as well.
Second, during the 1994 elections, Republicans won control of both chambers of the state legislature in eleven additional states. In most cases, Republicans maintained control of these legislatures through the end of the decade. Since Republicans at both the state and federal level tend to be more supportive of pro-life legislation, this made it easier for pro-lifers to enact protective legislation at the state level. Overall, it seems that political victories by pro-life candidates have made a real difference.
During the past 31 years, the right-to-life movement has worked tirelessly to protect the unborn. Progress has not come as quickly as many of us would like. However, political victories at the federal level in the 1980s and at the state level in the 1990s have made it easier to pass pro-life legislation. This legislation has been effective at protecting the unborn and has paid some real dividends. Furthermore, considering the fact that the next president may have the opportunity to nominate as many as four justices to the Supreme Court, the right-to-life movement would be well advised to stay the course in 2004.
–Michael J. New is a research fellow at Harvard University and an assistant professor at the University of Alabama.