What Wonkblog Gets Wrong about Abortion

by Michael J. New

The anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision usually generates some commentary on the state of the abortion debate from mainstream-media outlets. This year was no exception. Last Wednesday Sarah Kliff had an article on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog entitled “13 charts which show how Roe v. Wade changed abortion rights.” The charts present various long-term trends dealing with the politics and policy of legal abortion.

Most of the information is fairly accurate. Kliff is correct that the abortion rate increased after Roe v. Wade but that the number of abortions has been falling since 1990. Kliff is also correct that the number of state-level pro-life laws has significantly increased in recent years and the number of abortion facilities is declining. She presents evidence that public opinion on the Roe v. Wade decision has fluctuated over time — though unfortunately she fails to present the Gallup polls that demonstrate a clear increase in pro-life sentiment since the mid 1990s.

However, Kliff oddly claims that countries with more-liberal abortion laws have lower abortion rates. Here she fails to make the elementary distinction between correlation and causation. She does not mention that abortion tends to be more legally restricted in the Middle East, Africa, and South America, regions that tend to have much higher poverty rates and a higher incidence of other social pathologies that likely increase the demand for abortion.

Kliff also wrongly claims that it is “unclear” how abortion restrictions affect abortion rates. The length the media will go to raise questions about the efficacy of pro-life initiatives never ceases to amaze me. Earlier in her post, Kliff herself acknowledged that U.S. abortion rates increased significantly following the Roe v. Wade decision. Furthermore, there exists a considerable body of academic research showing that the incidence of abortion is sensitive to its legal status. 

For instance, a recent Guttmacher literature review acknowledged that the “best research” indicates that Medicaid-funding restrictions reduce the incidence of abortion. There are 19 academic studies that show parental-involvement laws lower abortion rates for minors. A peer-reviewed study analyzing changes in abortion policy in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism found abortion restrictions reduced abortion rates by around 25 percent. Of course, such research gets scant attention from the mainstream media.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.



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