Ever since the inauguration of President Obama in January 2009, he and his Democratic colleagues have known that abortion would be a key stumbling block to the enactment of health-care reform. There are several reasons for this. First, most Americans oppose government funding of abortion. Second, the Democratic party has recruited many pro-life candidates to run in conservative districts, and these Democrats would find it politically difficult to support health-care reform that includes public subsidies for abortion. Finally, President Obama and other Democrats sound disingenuous when they say they want to reduce the incidence of abortion, but then subsidize it through health-care reform.
As such, in a number of forums, President Obama and various surrogates have made concerted effort to either address or downplay the concerns of pro-lifers. But it seems that supporters of Obama’s health-care reform are now changing their approach and going on the offensive. In an editorial that ran in the Washington Post on Friday, author and journalist T. R. Reid argued that universal health care will lower the abortion rate in the United States. Using data from the United Nations, his argument relies on the fact that several European countries with universal health care also have lower abortion rates than the United States does.
However, Reid’s analysis is superficial and unconvincing. First, abortion rates in the United States are lower than what the UN statistics indicate. In 2005, the most recent year for which data is available, the U.S. abortion rates reported by the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control are 19.4 and 15, respectively. As such, the incidence of abortion in the United States is comparable to that of many European countries with universal health care, including Great Britain, France, and Sweden. Furthermore, even though Australia and New Zealand offer more generous public health benefits than the United States does, their rates of abortion are similar to ours.
More importantly, simply comparing the U.S. abortion rate to abortion rates in countries with universal health care is misleading. The United States has a far more racially diverse population than many of these European countries, and statistics show that a number of minority groups have higher-than-average abortion rates.
Furthermore, the experience of states that have offered more generous provision of public health benefits is instructive. For instance in 1974, Hawaii passed legislation requiring all employers to provide relatively generous health care benefits to any employee who works 20 hours a week or more. Since that time, Hawaii has consistently had one of the lowest rates of uninsured adults in the country. However, according to data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Hawaii’s abortion rate consistently exceeds the national average
An even better example comes from Tennessee. In 1994, Tennessee launched an ambitious public insurance program to cover its uninsured. TennCare, as it is called, expanded Medicaid to cover people who couldn’t afford insurance or who had been denied coverage by an insurance company. With an initial budget of $2.6 billion, TennCare quickly extended coverage to an additional 500,000 people by making access to its plans easy and affordable. The program, however, became so expensive that Tennessee was forced to scale it back in 2005.
Despite the fact that Tennessee invested heavily in more generous public health benefits, their abortion rate has not changed much since the mid 1990s. In fact, the decline in Tennessee’s abortion rate is actually well below the national average. Between 1995 and 2005, the Guttmacher Institute reports that the national abortion rate fell by 13.8 percent. However, in Tennessee the abortion rate fell by only 3.3 percent. Overall, it seems clear that more generous health benefits in Tennessee did little to reduce the incidence of abortion.
More importantly, there exist many reasons current health-care reform proposals would actually increase abortion rates. For instance, the legislation which passed the Senate and which Democrats are trying to push though the House includes public funding for abortion. This should concern pro-lifers for several reasons. First there is plenty of evidence that government subsidies for abortion increase abortion rates. Second, if abortion becomes a federally mandated benefit, that could jeopardize a number of state-level pro-life laws — including parental-involvement and informed-consent laws. Finally, one reason why the abortion rate in the United States has fallen is the substantial decline in the number of abortion providers. A steady flow of federal funds to abortion providers could stem or even reverse this trend.
As always, the pro-life movement would do well to continue its vocal and effective opposition to Obamacare.
– Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton, NJ.