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What Reduces Abortion Rates?



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Last week in a New York Times blog post, Ross Douthat responded to Will Saletan’s most recent attempt to make the pro-life case for Planned Parenthood. In his writings, Saletan typically makes two arguments. First, restricting abortion is ineffective. Saletan cited a recent study in The Lancet which found countries where abortion is restricted have similar or even higher abortion rates than countries with permissive abortion policies. Second, Saletan argues that greater financial support for Planned Parenthood’s contraception programs will result in fewer abortions.

The obvious problem with The Lancet study is that many of the countries where abortion is illegal are located in Africa or Latin America. These countries have much higher poverty rates and a higher incidence of other social pathologies which may increase the perceived need for abortion. Douthat shrewdly points out that to properly analyze variations in abortion policy, similar regions have to be compared. For instance, in the United States red states, which tend to have more pro-life laws, have lower abortion rates than blue states. Additionally, Catholic and Catholic-influenced countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Germany tend to have somewhat more restrictions on abortion and somewhat lower abortion rates than Scandinavian nations.

While Douthat does a nice job with his regional comparisons, he misses an opportunity to engage Saletan’s second argument about contraception. This is unfortunate because there is very little evidence that greater contraception funding will lower abortion rates. Indeed, separate studies from Guttmacher and the CDC have both found that a very small percentage of sexually active women forgo contraception due to either cost or lack of availability. Considering the government programs already in place, it is by no means clear that additional funding would increase contraceptive usage. Furthermore, there is no peer-reviewed research, analyzing actual data on contraception spending and abortion rates, that finds a negative and statistically significant correlation between the two.

Interestingly, if one examines Planned Parenthood’s annual reports dating back until the year 2002, there is a consistent increase in both the number of individuals receiving contraceptives from Planned Parenthood and the number of abortions they have performed. This is probably not a coincidence. All contraceptive measures have a failure rate. As such, by giving out more and more contraceptives, Planned Parenthood has successfully created an ever growing clientele for its most lucrative service — providing abortions.

Overall, I was very pleased to see Douthat devote a New York Times blog post to this subject. Other mainstream media pundits including Andrew Sullivan and Cristina Page also frequently argue that contraception is a far more effective tool than legislation for reducing abortion numbers. While their columns typically contain plenty of indignation, they provide precious little in the way of actual data and research. Unfortunately, these mainstream-media commentators typically ignore, rather than engage, their conservative critics. Perhaps Douthat’s critique on the New York Times website, will get them to engage the subject somewhat more thoughtfully.

In fact, Douthat’s case is stronger than he probably realizes. Breaking down the numbers further, a far higher percentage of unmarried pregnant teenagers obtain abortions in blue states than in red states. Additionally, there exists a very substantial body of peer reviewed research from public health and economics journals which shows that public-funding restrictions lower abortion rates. There is also a growing body of peer-reviewed research which shows that parental-involvement laws and properly designed informed-consent laws have been able to reduce the incidence of abortion. Of course, such studies typically receive scant attention from mainstream-media pundits.

— 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. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_J_New



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