Pro-Life Laws Work
Notwithstanding a highly touted study to the contrary.


During this election cycle, a study on abortion released by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) has received plenty of attention from Democrats and pro-life supporters of Barack Obama. The spin is that state level pro-life laws only have a marginal impact on abortion rates and increasing welfare expenditures is a superior strategy for reducing the incidence of abortion. However, the study contains methodological shortcomings. A proper analysis of the data demonstrates that pro-life laws are effective — and casts serious doubts about whether more generous welfare benefits actually result in abortion reductions.

The CACG study begins with a number of questionable assertions about abortion politics in the 1990s. On the first page the authors claim that “public opinion on abortion changed little” when a number of surveys indicate that increasing numbers of Americans during the 1990s were willing to describe themselves as being pro-life. On page two they also say that “there was no dramatic shift in the legal restrictions on abortion.” As such, they seem unwilling to acknowledge that during the 1990s, 12 more states enacted parental-involvement laws, 27 more states enacted informed-consent laws, 11 states enacted waiting periods, and 12 states enacted partial-birth-abortion bans. Interestingly, the study contains no literature review and the authors make little effort to engage researchers who find that pro-life laws are effective.

Many media reports are eagerly claiming that this study demonstrates that pro-life laws are ineffective. However, taking the results at face value, they actually provide some evidence that pro-life legislation is correlated with abortion declines. Two separate regressions of state abortion data from 1982 to 2000 find that Medicaid funding of abortion increases abortion rates by approximately 13 percent and 10 percent respectively. However, in their write-up, the study’s authors give these results relatively little attention.

The authors find that partial-birth-abortion bans have little effect, and that is consistent with my research and other research on the subject. The authors also find that parental-involvement laws have little effect, but they overstate their findings here. Their study analyzes overall abortion rates, not minor abortion rates. Since parental-involvement laws would only have a direct effect on the behavior of minors, it is unsurprising they only have a marginal effect on the overall abortion rate

The one area where the results of the CACG study contradict previous research involves their analysis of informed-consent laws. Overall, the authors find that informed-consent laws have little effect on state abortion rates. However, they also find that informed-consent laws that are currently in effect have a larger effect than those informed-consent laws that are nullified due to judicial challenges. This suggests that informed-consent laws are effective.

There are two main problems with the CACG analysis. First, the study includes data that is potentially biased. For instance, in certain years, some states — including Alabama, Iowa, and Illinois — only report data for abortions performed in hospitals. Since a relatively high percentage of abortions are performed in clinics, this underestimates the actual number of abortions performed in these states. Also, the authors should have excluded data from Kansas. During the 1990s, over 40 percent of the abortions in Kansas were performed on out-of-state residents — by far the highest percentage in the country. Moreover, the abortion rate in Kansas increased by a whopping 69 percent between 1991 and 1999. This increase cannot be attributed to changes in demographics, economics, or legislation. As such, excluding data from Kansas seems appropriate.