In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week we’re taking aim at the abortion debate. This is The Two Minute Drill for July 1, 2016.
The Issue: Do Abortion Laws Reduce Abortion Rates?
On June 27, the Supreme Court delivered the most important reproductive rights decision in years, striking down a Texas law aimed at shuttering abortion clinics in the state. The ruling is being viewed as a game changer for pro-choice advocates in some circles. I’m very skeptical, however, that this case will spell the end of pro-life incrementalism; far from it. Republican controlled legislatures will come up with new ways to limit the procedure. Ostensibly, the purpose of these laws is to reduce abortion rates. But are they effective in doing so?
The Explanation: Restrictive Laws Do Not Necessarily Lower Abortion Rates
For many years, the Left vs. Right political divide has been principally described as reflecting differences in opinion over the proper size and role of government. The political Right, it is argued, believes that the individual, not government, is the essential component of a good society, and that government should be limited to absolute necessities such as national defense. The political Left, on the other hand, believes that the state, not individual, is the essential component of a good society, and that government should be extended to all that is reasonably necessary to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all.
This narrative is an overly simplistic framework. But to the extent that it is accurate at all, the issue of abortion – and, for that matter, same-sex marriage – flips it on its head.
The Left takes the position that the decision to have an abortion is a personal choice of a woman regarding her own body and, to the extent the government should do anything, it should be to protect this right. In contrast, the Right believes that because abortion is a morally reprehensible practice, government should take action to the maximum extent possible. Consistent with this belief, the Right pursues policies aimed at banning abortion altogether or, at a minimum, limiting access to the procedure so severely that it is available only in theory, but not in fact. That is, on abortion, the Right believes in Big government with a capital “B.”
To this end, 30 laws in 14 states have been passed this year making it harder to get an abortion. In fact, 2016 marks the fifth straight year Republican legislatures have passed a large number of abortion restrictions.
If evidence mattered to the debate, though, the Republican position would only be tenable if restrictive laws had the effect of lowering the number of abortion procedures. According to new research, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
A new paper published in the Lancet, let by Gildha Sedgh of the Guttmacher Institute, and the World Health Organization, supersedes previous estimates of abortion rates that are considered too conservative. The authors estimate that the global rate fell slightly from 40 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in 1990, to 35 in 2014. The results masked a wide variation by income and by region, however. In the developed world, abortion rates declined dramatically from 46 to 27 – the steepest drop was seen in eastern Europe following the break-up of the Soviet Union. By contrast, the abortion rate remained relatively unchanged in developing regions. This matters: it is estimated that 50 million of the 56 million abortions every year are in developing countries.
Of importance here, however, is this: the authors found that restrictive abortion laws do not necessarily lower the number of abortion procedures. In fact, where abortion is completely illegal or severely restricted (e.g. permitted only to save the life of the pregnant woman), the average abortion rate is estimated at 37 per 1,000 women aged 15-44. In Latin America, which has restrictive laws and the highest abortion rates, one in three pregnancies ended in abortion in 2014. By contrast, in countries where abortion is legal in most cases, the rate is 34 per 1,000 women.
The results of Sedgh’s study make intuitive sense. If there is an unplanned pregnancy, it does not matter if the law is restrictive or liberal. But a strong word of caution here: tracking abortion rates is a very difficult task. Abortion is often under-reported, and some do not report them at all. Because of this, Sedgh’s numbers are not definitive, and they are highly susceptible to interpretation according to the agenda of both (a) the people who are organizing the data and (b) the people interpreting the data and selling their agenda to the public.
Furthermore, the data hardly suggests that liberal social policies are related to lower abortion rates. What this research does accomplish, however, is call into question the soundness of the logic behind restrictive abortion laws. Limited government this is not.
Featured Image Credit: Victoria Pickering on Flickr
In case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. Former president Ronald Reagan once said that “facts are stupid things,” and a senior official working for George W. Bush was once quoted anonymously that the White House could create its own reality. Trump takes that sentiment to new levels: He simply ignores reality.. Read the Column for June 28, 2016.