People have said it so often they believe it’s true: restrictive abortion laws don’t actually reduce the number of abortions. In fact, pro-lifers have it all wrong. While they waste their time fighting for restrictive abortion laws that have little or no effect on abortion rates, they ignore or condemn the use of contraception as a more effective solution. Studies are cited, in particular a study published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet (“Induced abortion: incidents and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008”), to prove that liberal abortion laws truly do support the concept of safe, legal, and rare. However, there are several severe problems with both the findings that supposedly prove the ineffectiveness of restrictive abortion laws and the proposed solution of increased availability of contraception.
The main problem with The Lancet study, as Ross Douthat of the New York Times points out, is that it doesn’t compare like to like. The study looks at the Western world, mainly North America and Western Europe, and compares these abortion rates to those of regions such as Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. The number of potential confounding variables when comparing rich regions with far poorer regions is staggering. Canada and the United States are hardly analogous to Sub-Saharan Africa (as if that isn’t obvious to anyone and everyone). In order to really discern the effect of restrictive abortion laws in North America, we should compare countries that are part of the developed world.
When developed countries are compared, there’s quite a different result. As Dr. Michael New points out, America’s red states have more pro-life laws and lower abortion rates than blue states. For example, Massachusetts is known as a Democrat stronghold, and the only restriction on abortion is that a minor must have parental consent. In Mississippi, one of the most Republican states in the US, there are counselling requirements, waiting periods, parental consent laws, ultrasound requirements and Medicaid coverage only in specific cases. According to the study, Massachusetts should have lower abortion rates, but the opposite is the case.
In Europe, Catholic-influenced countries such as France, Italy, Spain, and Germany have more restrictive abortion laws and lower abortion rates than Scandinavian nations. Douthat also mentions Ireland, where abortion is illegal except in cases when the life of the mother is at risk (a question that is addressed here). Ireland’s abortion rate is about one fourth of the English abortion rate. While cries of “don’t forget all the dangerous back-alley abortions” may fill the air, Ireland has some of the lowest maternal mortality rates in the entire world.
Further studies, done by MH Medoff of California State University’s Department of Economics, show that restrictive abortion laws do have an impact on abortion rates. The price of abortion as well as waiting period laws have an effect particularly on unmarried women. These laws, he says, “induce unmarried women to change their level of unprotected sexual activity or contraceptive behaviour, thereby reducing the likelihood of an unwanted nonmarital pregnancy.” Additionally, as abortion availability provides insurance against unwanted birth, restrictive abortion laws, which also increase the cost of obtaining an abortion, increase the incentive to avoid pregnancy. “Pregnancy avoidance behaviour,” as Medoff calls it, results in fewer unwanted pregnancies. Empirical results from the studies cited in his research that look at how policy restrictions affect teen pregnancy show that Medicaid funding restrictions and informed consent laws result in fewer unwanted teen pregnancies.
The Lancet study has glaring holes, and so does the solution offered in the place of abortion laws. Easier access to contraception and education about contraception, pro-choicers declare, will reduce the abortion rate. The logic, they claim, is simple. More use of contraception equals fewer unplanned pregnancies, which results in fewer abortions. We don’t even need to look at studies to scratch our heads at this one. The use of contraception has steadily increased since the introduction of the pill during the 1960s, and so has the abortion rate. If contraception hasn’t reduced abortion rates yet, why should we assume it will start working now?
Contraception has never reduced abortion rates, in fact, the boom in availability, acceptance, and use of contraceptives have caused people to develop a disconnect between sex and pregnancy. Many don’t consider the fact that use of their reproductive organs in an act of reproduction may result in them reproducing. It isn’t totally their fault. They’ve been told that contraception is 100% effective, that if you use contraception sex will never result in pregnancy; thus the disconnect. However, contraception has never been 100% effective. As a result, when people who forgot that sex makes babies “fall pregnant,” as the bizarre saying goes, due to faulty contraception, they turn to abortion. Increased use of contraception doesn’t result in decreased abortions, rather it results in more people having sex, and ultimately, more opportunities for contraception to fail.
That’s not the only problem with the contraception solution. Not only does contraception use not decrease abortion rates, it also results in many early-term abortions, why? Because many contraceptives have abortifacient capabilities. For example, the pill, while its first purpose is to prevent fertilization, also thins the wall of the uterine lining. Consequently, any embryo that is conceived despite use of the pill will most likely be unable to implant in the uterine lining, resulting in the tiny human being’s death. There is no way to calculate just how many abortions contraceptives have caused, but it’s sure to be no small number.
Restrictive abortion laws do make a difference on the number of abortions. The logic is simple, going back to psychological theories of reinforcement and punishment. If you want something to happen, you reinforce the action: when you don’t, you apply restrictions. It may be true that abortion laws won’t end abortion, in the same way that murder laws haven’t been successful in completely eradicating murder from our society. However, we can see throughout the developed world that abortion laws result in fewer abortions. Besides, this claim is merely side-stepping the issue. Even if abortion laws made very little difference, even if the difference could be called statistically insignificant, isn’t every life worth it? Ultimately, what statistics say should not make a difference to the plain and simple truth: human rights belong to every human being.