Last week, the Los Angeles Times published an article by Carnegie Mellon professor Wendy Goldman analyzing abortion policy in the former Soviet Union, which in 1920 became the first country to legalize abortion. But later concerns about low birth rates concerned Soviet officials and led Josef Stalin to make abortion illegal in 1936. Those who performed abortions could be sentenced to three years in prison, and women who obtained abortions could face fines. Abortion remained illegal in the former Soviet Union until 1955, two years after Stalin’s death.
In her op-ed, Goldman states that after abortion was made illegal in the U.S.S.R., there was a short-term increase in the birthrate. After a few years, Goldman argues, the Soviet birth rate fell, the abortion rate remained high, and the death rate from illegal abortions soared. In short, she uses the example of the Soviet Union to rehash typical talking points in support of legal abortion, chiefly that protections for unborn children fail to lower the abortion rate and that pro-life laws lead to negative public-health outcomes.
However, better and more recent research using data from other Eastern Bloc countries undermines that narrative. After the fall of Communism, many Eastern European countries changed their policies regarding abortion. Most abortions were illegal in Romania during the Cold War, but starting in 1990, abortion became legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Bulgaria and Albania liberalized their abortion laws in 1989 and 1991 respectively. Conversely, Poland, where abortion had been legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, enacted significant legal protections for preborn children in 1993.
In a 2004 study in the Journal of Law and Economics, economists Phillip Levine and Douglas Staiger analyzed how these changes in abortion policy in Eastern European countries affected the incidence of abortion. The authors held constant a range of economic and demographic variables and found that modest limits on abortion reduced abortion rates by 25 percent. Additionally, the authors found that in countries where abortion is legal either only to save the mother’s life or for specific medical reasons, abortion rates are only about 5 percent of the level in countries where abortion on request is legal. The findings demonstrate that legal protections for the unborn save lives.
Additionally, other current research suggests that protections for preborn children are consistent with positive public-health outcomes. Poland, for instance, consistently has low maternal-mortality rates. Prior to legalizing abortion in 2018, Ireland had better public-health outcomes than regions of the United Kingdom where abortion was legal. Ireland had lower rates of maternal deaths, low weight births, and breast cancer than England and Wales, and Scotland. Academic research with data from Chile has shown that maternal-mortality rates continued to fall after the country enacted protections for preborn children in 1989.
This year, a favorable ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization at the Supreme Court would allow pro-lifers to enact laws protecting preborn children for the first time since 1973. It is likely that media outlets will continue to publish op-eds such as Goldman’s, claiming that pro-life laws are ineffective at lowering abortion rates and result in negative public-health outcomes.
Pro-lifers should not be misled. Substantial research demonstrates that the incidence of abortion in sensitive to its legal status. Furthermore, data show that pro-life laws go hand in hand with positive public-health outcomes.