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New Study Shows Effectiveness of State Abortion Bans


Countless media pundits question the efficacy of the pro-life movement. Even though there is a substantial body of peer-reviewed evidence which finds that public-funding restrictions and parental-involvement laws are effective in lowering abortion rates, many dismiss pro-life efforts as just posturing. Furthermore, some maintain that overturning Roe v. Wade would not result in fewer abortions. The spin they give is that if abortion policy returned to the states, women seeking abortions would simply travel to blue states where abortion would likely remain legal.

However, a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that women seeking abortions are sensitive to the travel costs and that state bans on abortion would be effective in reducing abortions. This study makes use of a unique dataset of abortions performed in New York in 1971 and 1972. New York became one of the first U.S. states to legalize abortion in 1970 and kept accurate data on the age, race, and residence of those who obtained abortions. According to the authors, over 80 percent of women who travelled out of state to obtain an abortion went to New York.

The authors use this New York data and data from the CDC to calculate the rate of abortions obtained in New York by residents of particular states. The findings clearly show that in 1971 and 1972 residents of states closer to New York had significantly higher abortion rates than residents in states farther from New York. For instance, residents of New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut all obtained abortions in New York at rates higher than 10 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, while the same rates for residents of states such as Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina were less than 2. Holding constant a range of demographic and economic factors, this finding is robust and statistically significant. They also find that minorities were more easily deterred by travel costs than non-minorities.

Even though the methodology used in this paper is sophisticated, the authors appear somewhat politically naïve. They use their findings to calculate the abortion-rate decline if Roe v. Wade were overturned. Using data from the Center for Reproductive Rights, they assume that 31 states plus D.C. would ban abortion. This seems wildly optimistic from a pro-life perspective. However, that is not stopping Sarah Kliff of the Washington Post from using this study to argue that the reversal of Roe v. Wade would lead to a dramatic short-term change in abortion policy.

Obviously, plenty has changed since the early 1970s. Airline deregulation has made flying less expensive. Also, abortions are more likely to be performed in freestanding clinics rather than hospitals, which also lowers the cost. That having been said, this study adds to a nice body of research which finds that legal protections for the unborn lower abortion rates. Furthermore, efforts to close abortion clinics and efforts to pursue state abortion bans once Roe. v Wade is overturned are both effective strategies for protecting the unborn.