Guttmacher Institute publications often have a clear disconnect between the actual findings of research they cite and spin they give to these findings. “All That’s Old Is New Again: The Long Campaign To Persuade Women to Forego Abortion,” which recently appeared in Guttmacher Policy Review, is no exception. In this article the author, Rachel Benson Gold argues that pro-life efforts geared toward persuading women not to have abortions are ineffective.
Gold first takes aim at informed consent laws which provide women seeking abortions with information about public and private sources of support for single mothers, health risks, and fetal development. She cites a Guttmacher literature review which presents the results of a range of studies which purportedly show that these laws have little effect. However, three of the studies cited in this literature review find that Missisippi’s informed-consent law did reduce abortion rates. While Mississippi’s case may somewhat unique, the research does support the idea that a well-enforced law can lower the incidence of abortion. The other three studies which found that these laws have a marginal effect all have shortcomings. They include one study that analyzed only one year of data, one study whose dataset ended in 1992 — before most of these laws took effect, and one that analyzed only the subset of informed-consent laws that contained waiting periods.
The author also criticizes pro-life legislative efforts that would require abortion providers to give women the option of seeing an ultrasound before the abortion is performed. This is a relatively new legislative strategy and there is not enough data with which to evaluate the effectiveness of these laws. However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence from Crisis Pregnancy Centers that a high percentage of women who see ultrasounds decide to keep their unborn child. Obviously, women who are seeking assistance at Crisis Pregnancy Centers cannot be directly compared to women who have already decided to seek an abortion. But there is still reason to believe that seeing an ultrasound image might dissuade some abortion-minded women.
At the end of the essay Gold argues that “the primary way to lower levels of abortions is to take aim at the proximate cause, unintended pregnancy.” Not surprisingly, she criticizes the pro-life movement for not being more contraceptive-friendly. However, contraceptives are already widely available and Guttmacher’s own research indicates that few women forgo contraception because of either cost or lack of availability. Furthermore, it is also telling that Guttmacher makes no mention of perhaps the best strategy for reducing abortions — greater sexual restraint.
– Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.