A recent study about world abortion rates that appeared in the British medical journal, The Lancet has received significant mainstream-media coverage in recent weeks. Every five years or so, a team of researchers investigates the incidence of abortion worldwide. The findings of this study indicate that after a period of decline, worldwide abortion rates are leveling. The world abortion rate fell from 35 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age to 29 between 1995 and 2003. However, according to the study, the worldwide abortion rate dropped only from 29 to 28 between 2003 and 2008.
What always receives the most attention in these reports are the cross-country comparisons. The results often indicate that countries where abortion is heavily restricted have similar or even higher abortion rates than countries with permissive abortion policies. This report is no exception. Guttmacher’s press release states the results provide “further evidence that restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower rates of abortion.” An article that appeared on Time.com began with the headline “Abortions Are More Common in Countries that Outlaw Them.”
Of course, correlation is not the same thing as causation. What gets less attention is the fact 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. In reality, there is good academic research which finds that legal protections of the unborn do reduce abortion rates. A study published by the Journal of Law and Economics in 2004 showed that abortion restrictions that were put in place in Eastern European countries after the fall of Communism reduced abortion rates by 25 percent.
Furthermore, a vast majority of the studies in Guttmacher’s own literature review showed that public-funding restrictions lower abortion rates. Unfortunately, such studies typically receive scant attention from the mainstream media.