Debunking Elite Opinion on Abortion Policy

by Michael J. New

Marianne Mollmann, the director of women’s rights advocacy at Human Rights Watch, had a post last week on The Hill’s Congress blog that nicely encapsulated elite opinion on abortion policy. It is well written, measured in tone, and respectful of the concerns of pro-lifers. It also offers policy prescriptions that are totally incorrect.

Mollmann makes two arguments. First, the legal status of abortion does not impact its prevalence. People will not change their sexual activity, and the legal status of abortion will not affect the resolution of any crisis pregnancies. Secondly, the best way to reduce abortion rates is to improve access to contraception and offer more generous public support to pregnant women through family leave and support for child care. This approach certainly appeals to some on the political left. In reality, however, there exists very little empirical data to support either of Mollmann’s arguments.

First, there exists plenty of research which indicates that changes in the legal status of abortion have had a real impact on the incidence of abortion. For instance, between 1973 (the year of the Roe v. Wade decision) and 1980, the number of abortions performed in the United States more than doubled. Furthermore, a Guttmacher Institute literature review found that 20 of 24 peer-reviewed studies found that public funding of abortion for low-income women increased abortion rates. This is especially relevant today since there is a good chance that insurance polices covering abortion will receive public subsidies through Obamacare.

Specific articles which have appeared in peer-reviewed journals provide further evidence that legally restricting abortion results in reductions in abortion rates. A 2004 study that appeared in The Journal of Law and Economics analyzed how changes in abortion policies in post-Communist Eastern Europe affected the incidence of abortion. (After the demise of Communism, some Eastern European countries liberalized their abortion laws, while others enacted restrictions.) The authors concluded that modest restrictions on abortion reduced abortion rates by around 25 percent.

A study that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 found that a Texas parental-involvement law led to statistically significant reductions in the number of abortions performed on minors (both in and out of state) and a slight but statistically significant increase in the teen birthrate. Finally, my study on pro-life legislation, which recently appeared in State Politics and Policy Quarterly and utilizes state data from both the Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control, provides evidence that informed-consent laws, public-funding restrictions, and parental-involvement laws are all correlate with reductions in the incidence of abortion.

There is not much empirical evidence to suggest that either increasing access to contraception or increasing public support for pregnant women will lower abortion rates. To cite my favorite statistic, the Guttmacher Institute’s own survey of sexually active women who were not using contraception found that only 12 percent said that they lacked access to contraceptives due to financial or other reasons. Furthermore, there is no existing body of social-science evidence which suggests that more generous public benefits of any kind lead to lower abortion rates.

However, Mollmann makes one good point at the end of her essay: that “policymakers who want to make some impact on how frequently abortion is used should look to research.” This is because a survey of the existing research clearly demonstrates the best way to reduce abortion is to pursue both greater legal protection for unborn children and policies that encourage sexual restraint. As such, the pro-life movement would do well to ignore elite opinion and stay the course.

Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.