Politics & Policy

Quiet Decline

The good news about abortion that hasn't made news.

Pro-lifers have been very quietly receiving some good news in recent years. On Thursday, the Alan Guttmacher Institute released data indicating that the number of abortions has fallen by 25 percent since 1990. These findings are very consistent with data that was released this past November by the Centers for Disease Control. Overall the number of abortions has fallen 13 out of the past 14 years, including every year of the George W. Bush administration. Furthermore, there is a growing body of social-science evidence indicating that legal restrictions on abortion are playing a key role in these declines.

However, one would not know this from listening to the mainstream media. The media continue to largely ignore America’s long-term abortion decline. Instead, they continue provide plenty of favorable coverage to a relatively small number of analyses which supposedly indicate that both the passage of pro-life legislation and support for pro-life candidates does little to affect the incidence of abortion.

The most well-known example of this occurred during the 2004 election cycle. Ethicist Glen Harold Stassen wrote a widely circulated article for Sojourners, arguing that abortions had actually increased after President Bush’s inauguration. This article was reprinted by a number of major newspapers around the country including the Charlotte Observer, the Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle, and the Hartford Courant. Furthermore, Stassen’s research was cited in articles that appeared in the the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There were a number of problems with Stassen’s analysis. He received his data from state health departments whose data tend to less reliable than the data released by the Centers for Disease Control. Stassen also analyzed data from a very small sampling of states. Furthermore, some states specifically attributed their increases to more rigorous reporting standards. Nonetheless Stassen’s claims have stuck and are still frequently cited by Democrats and supporters of legalized abortion. Interestingly, now that more reliable data from both the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the CDC demonstrates that abortions actually declined during President Bush’s first term in office, not one major newspaper has revisited the issue or issued a public correction.

Instead, this fall, many mainstream-media outlets were busy touting another study which at first glance, appeared to question the effectiveness of placing any legal restrictions on abortion. This study appeared in the British Medical Journal The Lancet. It found that countries where abortion is legally restricted have a similar incidence of abortion to countries with permissive abortion policies. Not surprisingly, this survey has received effusive praise from pro-choice activists.

However, these activists, and much of the mainstream media, misinterpreted the findings. Some background is instructive. Periodically, scholars affiliated with the Alan Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood’s research arm) conduct a comprehensive survey on the worldwide incidence of abortion. The survey which The Lancet published this October collected data from 2003. Prior to this study, the most recent worldwide abortion survey used data from 1995. As such, it is very important to note that this study that appeared in The Lancet was in no way a scientific study of the effects of legal restrictions on abortion. It was simply a survey of the worldwide incidence of abortion.

So why has this study received so much praise from the media and pro-choice activists? This is because supporters of abortion rights have latched on to two findings which they claim demonstrate the ineffectiveness of pro-life legislation. First is that countries with restrictive abortion laws have approximately the same incidence of abortion as countries with permissive abortion policies. Second, since the most recent worldwide survey, the largest abortion declines have taken place in Europe where abortion is mostly legal.

However, neither of these findings provides any useful information about the effects of legal restrictions on abortion. First, it is true that many countries that place strict legal limits on abortion have relatively high abortion rates. However, it is important to keep in mind that there are often substantial differences between those countries where abortion is legal and those where abortion is restricted. Most countries that restrict abortion are located in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. These countries tend to have very high poverty rates. Furthermore, in many cases these countries have a higher prevalence of other social pathologies which may increase the perceived need for abortion.

Second, the findings regarding Europe are also misleading. It is true that between 1995 and 2003 the largest abortion declines took place in Europe. However, a closer look at the data reveals that much of this decline took place in Eastern Europe. In fact, abortion rates remained relatively constant in Northern, Southern, and Western Europe during this period of time. While many pro-choice activists claim that contraception is the key reason for this decline in Eastern Europe, there are other factors as well. Abortions have become more costly in many Eastern European countries. Furthermore, the strong economic growth and the social and cultural changes that took place after the demise of Communism also probably deserve some credit for this decline.

Now in reality, there exists plenty of good evidence that changes in the legal status of abortion have a real impact on the incidence of abortion. U.S. history should give supporters of abortion rights pause. Between 1973, the year of the Roe v. Wade decision, and 1980, the number of abortions performed in the United States more than doubled. Furthermore, there is also evidence that this liberalization of abortion policy had a significant impact on sexual mores. The years following Roe v. Wade saw significant increases in both sexual activity and the number of conceptions.

Articles that have appeared in peer reviewed academic journals provide further evidence that legally restricting abortion results in reductions in abortion rates and ratios. A 2004 study that appeared in The Journal of Law and Economics analyzed how changes in abortion policies in post-communist Eastern Europe affected the incidence of abortion. This study was particularly interesting because after the demise of communism, some Eastern European countries liberalized their abortion laws, while others enacted restrictions on abortion. At any rate, the authors concluded that modest restrictions on abortion reduced abortion rates by around 25 percent.

Furthermore, a study that was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2006 found that a Texas parental-involvement law led to statistically significant reductions in the number of abortions performed on minors (both in and out of state) and a slight, but statistically significant increase in the teen birthrate. Finally, my own Heritage Foundation research on state level pro-life legislation which utilizes data from both the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control provides evidence that informed consent laws, public-funding restrictions, and parental-involvement laws are all correlated with reductions in the incidence of abortion.

Interestingly, even some studies that have appeared in the Alan Guttmacher Institute’s own Family Planning Perspectives provide evidence that pro-life legislation at the state level reduces the incidence of abortion. While Guttmacher typically does not trumpet these findings, they are real nonetheless. As such, before the media and pro-choice activists insist that the incidence of abortion is unaffected by its legal status and attempts to legally restrict abortion are doomed to failure, they may want to consider looking at the trends and reviewing the research — including research published by organizations that support legal abortion.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.

Michael J. New is a research associate at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and is an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New

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