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Tracking the Times on Abortion Statistics


On Monday, Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times had a post on his Loyal Opposition blog analyzing whether or not abortion is rare. Interestingly, he argued that both sides in the abortion debate have a vested interest in making the case that abortions are common. People who are pro-life want to call for greater restrictions on abortion by suggesting that access to abortion is too easy. Supporters of legal abortion want to make the case that obtaining an abortion is fairly common and thus part of the medical and cultural mainstream.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, there were 1.2 million abortions performed in 2008. Rosenthal finds that during the same year, there were more blood transfusions and cardiac catherizations and about the same number of upper gastrointestinal endoscopies performed. Rosenthal also discusses the rate of abortion. He reports that there are only 2 abortions performed for every 100 women between the ages of 15 and 44. All of this leads him to support his original conclusion that abortions are relatively rare.

Interestingly, one statistic that Rosenthal fails to mention is the abortion ratio, which is the number of abortions per thousand live births. According to the CDC, the abortion ratio in 2008 was around 234 abortions for every thousand live births. However, the ratio is significantly higher in many parts of the country. A recent analysis by the Chiaroscuro Foundation found that, in New York City, 41 percent of all pregnancies, except those that ended in miscarriage, ended in abortion. This is a much higher percentage than many realize, as evidenced by the considerable amount of attention the Chiaroscuro analysis received from media outlets both in New York and across the country.

After spending an entire blog post poring over abortion statistics, Rosenthal decides at the end of the day, it does not matter. Why? Well according to Rosenthal, even if abortion is outlawed, the abortion rate will not go down. Rosenthal claims the abortion rate was about the same before the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 as it is today. Here Rosenthal is blinded by ideology. The number of legal abortions literally doubled between 1973 and 1979 and there is a significant academic literature detailing how easier access to abortion changed the sexual mores and sexual behavior of young people.

Rosenthal also claims that half of all maternal deaths in the first half of the 20th century were due to illegal abortions. However, he fails to mention that the main factor which led to the decline in maternal deaths was widespread use of penicillin, not widespread access to abortion. All in all, it is unfortunate — but not surprising — that Rosenthal was more diligent in his research about the frequency of blood transfusions, cardiac catherizations, and upper gastrointestinal endoscopies than he was about important trends in the incidence of abortion.

Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.


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