The Corner

Politics & Policy

Guttmacher Study on World Abortion Rates Misleads

(Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

This spring, the Guttmacher Institute released a study on global abortion rates. It analyzes abortion data from 193 countries and six territories between the years 2010 and 2014. The study finds that global abortion rates have declined since the early 1990s and that the declines in developed regions of the world have been considerably larger than declines in developing countries. This study has been covered by a number of media outlets including NBC News, U.S. News and World Report, and CNN.

Much of the attention has been focused on the cross-country comparisons. This study purportedly finds that abortion rates in countries with legal protections for the unborn are similar to abortion rates in countries where abortion is legal. Studies like this are very common. The medical journal The Lancet released similar studies in 2012 and 2016. The authors never explicitly state that pro-life laws have no impact. However, that is the spin the mainstream media eagerly applies while omitting any commentary from pro-life researchers.

In reality, these studies are very misleading. According to Guttmacher, only seven developed countries have significant legal protections for the unborn. Most of the countries where the unborn are protected are developing countries located in Africa, South America, Latin America, and the Middle East. These countries typically have very high poverty rates and cannot be easily compared to industrialized democracies in North America and Europe. The media coverage of these studies fails to acknowledge this.

Additionally, there is a body of academic research showing that the incidence of abortion is sensitive to its legal status. The best such study was published in the Journal of Law and Economics in 2004. Unlike other studies, it looked at how changes in abortion policy affected abortion rates. It specifically analyzed Eastern European countries after the fall of Communism. Some countries, such as Romania, liberalized their abortion law while others, such as Poland, instituted legal protections for the unborn. The study held constant a range of economic and demographic variables and found that modest limits on abortion reduced abortion rates by 25 percent.

Furthermore, abortion trends in the United States demonstrate that legalizing abortion increases abortion rates. Between 1974, the first full year of legal abortion in all 50 states, and 1980, the abortion rate in the United States increased by approximately 50 percent. Great Britain also saw substantial increases in its abortion rate after legislation legalizing abortion took effect in 1968. Additionally, a broad body of research shows that even incremental pro-life laws such as public-funding restrictions, parental-involvement laws, and properly designed informed-consent laws all reduce abortion rates.

This week, Irish voters have the opportunity to uphold the Eighth Amendment to their constitution which has provided legal protection for the unborn. This referendum is receiving worldwide attention. One of the main arguments typically made by supporters of legal abortion is that the incidence of abortion is not affected by its legal status. They argue that legalizing abortion will simply ensure that abortions will be performed in a safe medical environment. In fact, abortion rates sharply increase when abortion is legalized. One hopes Irish voters will not be persuaded by this misinformation campaign and will uphold the strong legal protections for the unborn in the Irish constitution.

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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