During this election cycle, a study on abortion released by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) has received plenty of attention from Democrats and pro-life supporters of Barack Obama. The spin is that state level pro-life laws only have a marginal impact on abortion rates and increasing welfare expenditures is a superior strategy for reducing the incidence of abortion. However, the study contains methodological shortcomings. A proper analysis of the data demonstrates that pro-life laws are effective — and casts serious doubts about whether more generous welfare benefits actually result in abortion reductions.
The CACG study begins with a number of questionable assertions about abortion politics in the 1990s. On the first page the authors claim that “public opinion on abortion changed little” when a number of surveys indicate that increasing numbers of Americans during the 1990s were willing to describe themselves as being pro-life. On page two they also say that “there was no dramatic shift in the legal restrictions on abortion.” As such, they seem unwilling to acknowledge that during the 1990s, 12 more states enacted parental-involvement laws, 27 more states enacted informed-consent laws, 11 states enacted waiting periods, and 12 states enacted partial-birth-abortion bans. Interestingly, the study contains no literature review and the authors make little effort to engage researchers who find that pro-life laws are effective.
Many media reports are eagerly claiming that this study demonstrates that pro-life laws are ineffective. However, taking the results at face value, they actually provide some evidence that pro-life legislation is correlated with abortion declines. Two separate regressions of state abortion data from 1982 to 2000 find that Medicaid funding of abortion increases abortion rates by approximately 13 percent and 10 percent respectively. However, in their write-up, the study’s authors give these results relatively little attention.
The authors find that partial-birth-abortion bans have little effect, and that is consistent with my research and other research on the subject. The authors also find that parental-involvement laws have little effect, but they overstate their findings here. Their study analyzes overall abortion rates, not minor abortion rates. Since parental-involvement laws would only have a direct effect on the behavior of minors, it is unsurprising they only have a marginal effect on the overall abortion rate
The one area where the results of the CACG study contradict previous research involves their analysis of informed-consent laws. Overall, the authors find that informed-consent laws have little effect on state abortion rates. However, they also find that informed-consent laws that are currently in effect have a larger effect than those informed-consent laws that are nullified due to judicial challenges. This suggests that informed-consent laws are effective.
There are two main problems with the CACG analysis. First, the study includes data that is potentially biased. For instance, in certain years, some states — including Alabama, Iowa, and Illinois — only report data for abortions performed in hospitals. Since a relatively high percentage of abortions are performed in clinics, this underestimates the actual number of abortions performed in these states. Also, the authors should have excluded data from Kansas. During the 1990s, over 40 percent of the abortions in Kansas were performed on out-of-state residents — by far the highest percentage in the country. Moreover, the abortion rate in Kansas increased by a whopping 69 percent between 1991 and 1999. This increase cannot be attributed to changes in demographics, economics, or legislation. As such, excluding data from Kansas seems appropriate.
Second, the authors do not weight their data by a measure of state population. Unweighted data distorts the analysis and makes it appear as if pro-life laws are less effective than they really are. Between 1992 and 1999, the overall national abortion rate declined by 16.7 percent. However, if one averages the abortion rates in each state in 1992 and 1999 (unweighted) the abortion decline comes out to 23 percent. This is because a number of low-population states experienced above-average abortion declines during the 1990s. The effects of pro-life laws are analyzed by comparing abortion rates in states that have enacted these laws to the national trend. Unweighted data exaggerates the national decline and makes these laws seem less effective than they really are.
In my analysis, I collected the same variables from the same set of states and years. The means and standard deviations of the variables I use are very similar to the means and standard deviations reported in the CACG study. However, in my analysis, I eliminate the potentially biased data from Alabama, Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas, and weight the data by the number of women in each state who are of childbearing age (15 to 44). Furthermore, I also add some additional variables to the regression model to better hold constant demographic and economic fluctuations.
My findings indicate that welfare spending has only a marginal effect on abortion rates. More importantly, my regression results indicate pro-life laws are effective. Specifically, public funding of abortion through Medicaid increases abortion rates, while state-level informed-consent laws reduce abortion rates. Both of these findings are statistically significant. Overall, these findings contribute to the body of academic and policy literature which argues that pro-life laws are effective at lowering the incidence of abortion
CACG missed an opportunity with their abortion study. They commissioned a methodologically rigorous analysis of a complicated issue — the incidence of abortion at the state level. However, their primary interest seemed to have been making the case that welfare spending was the best way to reduce abortion. They did not engage previous research on pro-life legislation. And tellingly, they failed to publicize their own findings which indicated that certain types of pro-life laws were effective. The pro-life community might have been more receptive to them had they been willing to acknowledge their own finding that public-funding restrictions reduce abortion rates. Instead, many pro-lifers simply wrote them off as group whose objective was to provide political and religious cover for pro-abortion supporters of Barack Obama.
The impact of welfare programs on the incidence of abortion is an important issue, and one that merits further analysis. However, my analysis of the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good data indicates that welfare spending has only a marginal impact on the incidence of abortion. Additionally, I find evidence that both public-funding restrictions and informed-consent laws are effective at reducing state abortion rates. Hopefully this growing body of research on pro-life legislation will continue to inform discussions among Catholics, pro-lifers, and others who are deciding how best to cast their vote on Election Day.
– Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a visiting fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.