Politics & Policy

Dana Milbank’s Illogical Case Against Pro-Lifers

Dana Milbank (via Flickr)

On Friday, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank published a piece entitled “Antiabortion Advocates Have a Logic Problem,” becoming the latest in an exceptionally long line of commentators to criticize the pro-life movement for placing too much emphasis on anti-abortion legislation, and for not being more contraceptive-friendly.

Milbank assumes that easier access to contraception significantly reduces the abortion rate and that pro-life legislative efforts — such as the recently reintroduced 20-week abortion ban — are at best marginally effective. He cites the AP’s recent analysis of state abortion rates as evidence that there were large abortion declines in politically liberal states that have had no recent laws restricting abortions.

Last week’s AP analysis, which showed a 12 percent decline in abortions between 2011 and 2014, was certainly interesting. But many commentators, including Milbank, are reading way too much into the numbers. Data from state health departments is not always reliable, and some of the declines could have been caused by poor reporting. Furthermore, the AP analysis would have been better if it had focused on abortion rates (measuring the number of abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age) rather than the overall number of abortions. Some of the fluctuations in abortion numbers might have been affected by changes in population or demographics.

In his column, Milbank confidently states that “efforts to make contraception cheaper and more widely available” have significantly reduced the number of abortions. However, he only offers two pieces of evidence, neither of which is particularly persuasive. First, Slate writer Will Saletan thinks contraceptives work, and second, a Guttmacher Institute study of the three-year period between 2008 and 2011 says they do. (To make his case, he also deceptively quotes pro-lifer Charmaine Yoest, simplifying her position to the point where she subsequently felt the need to publish her correspondence with him on Twitter to set the record straight.)

The most persuasive explanation for the long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate is that a lower percentage of women facing unintended pregnancies are choosing abortion.

Of course, a longer, more serious look at the data demonstrates key flaws with Milbank’s argument. Contraceptive use has been rising since the 1960s, but increased use of contraceptives did not reduce the incidence of abortions in either the 1970s or the 1980s.

More important, the unintended-pregnancy rate has been fairly stable over the long term and has increased slightly since the mid-1990s. Again, greater use of contraceptives has not reduced the unintended-pregnancy rate. As such, I have a simple question for Milbank, Saletan, and other advocates of contraception: If contraceptives are effective, and contraceptive use has gone up, why has the unintended-pregnancy rate actually increased since the mid-1990s?

Milbank is also incorrect that even-easier access to birth control would further reduce abortion rates. In 2002 Guttmacher surveyed about 10,000 sexually active women who were not using contraception. Only 12 percent of the women cited cost or availability as a reason why they were not using contraceptives. More common reasons included a willingness to run the risk of getting pregnant and wanting to demonstrate trust in a partner. Considering that there are already programs to subsidize contraceptives for low-income women, it seems unlikely that even more spending would either result in more contraceptive use or reduce the unintended-pregnancy rate.

Now, the most persuasive explanation for the long-term decline in the American abortion rate is that a lower percentage of women facing unintended pregnancies are choosing abortion. According to data from Guttmacher, in 1994, 54 percent of unintended pregnancies ended in abortion. By 2008, that number had fallen to 40 percent. Pro-life educational and service efforts, such as pregnancy-resource centers, have likely played a role in the decline. Interestingly, abortion numbers are falling the fastest among younger women — and many surveys show that the current generation of young adults is far more skeptical about abortion than previous generations.

Without question, pro-life laws have also played a significant role in reducing the abortion rate. Saletan claims “the data shows that there is no reliable correlation between the degrees of restrictions in a state and the abortion rate.” But study after study has shown otherwise, affirming the effectiveness of restrictions on public funding of abortions and pro-life parental-involvement laws. Even Guttmacher acknowledges this. There is also a small but growing body of research documenting the effectiveness of informed-consent laws.

Throughout the column, Milbank sharply criticizes pro-life efforts to enact a 20-week abortion ban at the federal level. Milbank is correct that a 20-week abortion ban would fail to dramatically reduce the U.S. abortion rate. But incremental legislation serves a variety of purposes. The mid-1990s debate over banning partial-birth abortions, for example, markedly shifted the American conversation on abortion and resulted in durable long-term gains in pro-life sentiment. Countless social movements throughout history have succeeded in making incremental gains before achieving their final objective. And a variety of pro-life educational, service, and political efforts have helped reduce the number of abortions by 34 percent since 1990. All in all, pro-life efforts seem pretty logical.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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