The Corner

Newsweek Misleads on America’s ‘Abortion Wars’

Late last month Newsweek ran a cover story on “America’s Abortion Wars.” Newsweek deserves some credit for highlighting the issue and for their great choice of a cover photo. Indeed, the graphic color photo of an unborn child in utero was eye-catching and made a compelling case for the humanity of the unborn. Unfortunately, the rest of the article was a disappointment. In the beginning of the article, the author, Kurt Eichenwald, attempts to position himself as a moderate. He says that he is opposed to abortion. He acknowledges the arguments made by pro-lifers about the humanity of the unborn are reasonable. He states that answers will never come from activists and says it is up to the rational middle to bring this war to an end.

Unfortunately, the article promptly takes a turn for the worse. Amazingly, Eichenwald manages to include nearly every discredited or misleading statistic cited by supporters of legal abortion during the past 40 years. For instance, even though a number of respected embryologists have testified that the unborn can feel pain at 20 weeks, Eichenwald flatly states that unborn children at 22 weeks cannot feel pain. He assumes that Planned Parenthood’s contraception programs stop abortions, even though a substantial body of academic research shows programs designed to encourage contraceptive use are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

It gets even worse. Eichenwald uncritically recites claims that giving birth poses greater health risks than obtaining an abortion. However, U.S. health surveillance on abortion injuries is very weak and many analyses fail to consider the negative long-term health consequences of abortion. Overall, it is clear that Eichenwald does not view pro-lifers as credible. He states that abortion opponents “have grown accustomed to lying in order to advance policies or block abortions.” Unsurprisingly, he makes no such claims about activists who support legal abortion.

However, the worst part of the article is when Eichenwald repeats the discredited argument that pro-life laws will not stop abortions. He states that the number of lives lost to abortion would be no lower had abortion remained illegal. This just simply defies logic and common sense. In 1974, the first full year when abortion was legal in all 50 states, there were nearly 900,000 abortions performed according to the Guttmacher Institute. By 1980 that number had increased by 66 percent to over 1.5 million.

Indeed, when abortion becomes legal, there are many factors that explain why abortion rates increase. Access to abortion becomes easier, sexual mores change, and attitudes toward abortion typically shift. Other countries that have legalized abortion have also seen dramatic increases in their abortion rates. Overall, there is also a significant body of academic research which shows that the incidence of abortion is affected by its legal status. There is also research which shows that incremental pro-life laws — including public-funding restrictions, parental-involvement laws, and properly designed informed-consent laws — all lower the incidence of abortion.

Eichenwald does not stop there. He doubles down and attempts to use Texas’s HB 2 as an example of the ineffectiveness of pro-life laws. HB 2 attempts to improve women’s health by requiring abortion facilities to have a doctor on staff with admitting privileges at a local hospital. It also requires abortion clinics to meet state standards for ambulatory surgical centers. Since HB 2 went into effect in 2013 over half of the abortion facilities in Texas have closed. Eichenwald cites a recent Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP) study to claim that HB 2 has led to a sharp increase in self-induced abortions among Texas women.

However, the TxPEP study provides absolutely no credible evidence that self-induced abortions have increased in Texas since HB 2 went into effect. The TxPEP study was simply an online survey which asked approximately 800 Texas women if they had ever attempted to self-induce an abortion. It did not compare data before and after HB 2 went into effect. As such, it provides no evidence that self-induced abortions have increased since HB 2 took effect in 2013.

At the end of the article, Eichenwald makes a fair point that the demographics of women seeking abortions have been changing in recent years. Abortion rates among the wealthy have fallen while the incidence of abortion among low-income earners is increasing. He is also right that a significant percentage of women seeking abortion do so because they are concerned about the high cost of raising and caring for a child. As such, Eichenwald’s solution is a range of government programs designed to make it easier for women to carry their pregnancy to term.

Specifically, Eichenwald proposes increasing the minimum wage, federally funded day care, government guarantees of prenatal care, and stronger legal protections for pregnant women in the workplace. However, he does not mention in his article the thousands of pregnancy resource centers that already provide for the material, emotional, and spiritual needs of hundreds of thousands of pregnant women every year. In fairness, it would not be a bad idea for pro-lifers to thoughtfully consider various policy instruments that might make it easier for pregnant women to carry their children to term. But they have already done so in many cases by supporting child and adoption tax credits and backing the Earned Income Tax Credit. That said, Eichenwald needs to realize that there is literally no research which shows that increased spending on various government programs lowers abortion rates. More government spending is hardly a panacea.

As the election cycle heats up, I am sure we will only see more analyses like this from various prominent media outlets. Developments in ultrasound technology have made many Americans increasingly uneasy about abortion and public opinion is shifting in a pro-life direction. Media outlets are aware of this and have changed their approach to the issue. Instead of arguing with pro-lifers about the morality of abortion, they have doubled down on the argument that pro-life efforts are ineffective. While fresh thinking about ways to lower the abortion rate is always welcome, these articles fail to point out that the abortion rate has fallen by 25 percent over the last 20 years and that a much higher percentage of women facing unintended pregnancies are deciding to carry their child to term. Pro-life efforts have been more effective than many in the media are willing to admit.

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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