This week, the Washington Post published a story by Sarah Kliff about a new study that documents the demographics of women who seek late-term abortions. Like most journalists, Kliff takes considerable pains to portray the Roe v. Wade decision as both moderate and popular. Roe v. Wade is described as a decision that provided “comprehensive protection of elective, first-trimester abortion.” Of course, Roe had the practical impact of legalizing abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy since it allows for only marginal restrictions in later trimesters.
Kliff goes on to cite a statistic that 62 percent of Americans support legal abortions in the first trimester. However, other public-opinion surveys find that support for abortion goes down when respondents are asked about specific circumstances when abortion should be legal. Many surveys show that majorities of Americans reject abortion as a form of birth control and disapprove of women seeking abortions because they are facing economic hardship.
The article goes on to describe the findings of the new study, which was conducted by a pair of researchers affiliated with the Guttmacher Institute. It compares the demographics of women who had abortions after 12 weeks to those who had abortions before 12 weeks. Those groups that are more likely to have abortions after 12 weeks include minors, blacks, and women with less education. Overall, the story implies that those women who are seeking late-term abortions are disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds or are facing unique, hard case circumstances.
The coverage of this study was accurate, but misleading. There were found to be demographic differences between women who seek late-term abortions and those who seek abortions earlier in pregnancy. However, it is not as if everyone or even a majority of women seeking late-term abortions were facing an unusual circumstance.
For instance, 6.5 percent of first trimester abortions are performed on minors, as opposed to 8.9 percent of abortions performed after 12 weeks Similarly, 11.7 percent of first-trimester abortions are performed on women who did not have a high-school diploma, as opposed to 16.9 percent of abortions performed after 12 weeks. These differences certainly achieve conventional standards of statistical significance. However, it is not as if an overwhelming number of late term abortions are performed on minors or women with low levels of formal education.
Interestingly, the study shows that those who sought late-term abortions were more likely to pay for them using either Medicaid or private insurance. There is a substantial body of peer-reviewed research that shows that public-funding restrictions reduce abortion rates. However, state restrictions on private-insurance coverage of abortion are a relatively new issue that has garnered relatively little attention from scholars. As such, these findings indicate that limiting the ability of private insurers to cover abortion might well be a worthwhile policy objective for pro-lifers.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the Univeristy of Michigan–Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.