How the Legal Status of Abortion Impacts Abortion Rates by Michael J. New

One argument frequently made by supporters of legal abortion is that the incidence of abortion is not affected by its legal status. As such, proponents of legal abortion maintain that legalizing abortion will not result in more abortions, but will instead improve the safety of abortions – ensuring they are done by trained medical professionals in sanitary medical settings. Arguments that legalizing abortion will improve various public health outcomes has been a frequent talking point in various political efforts to either legalize abortion or liberalize abortion laws around the world.

However, an extremely broad body of economic and public health research clearly indicates that various legal protections of unborn children reduce the incidence of abortion. Furthermore, there is also a significant body of academic research which shows that even incremental pro-life laws prevent some abortions from taking place. This memo will summarize the academic research that analyzes how the legal status of abortion impacts the incidence of abortion. The first part of this memo will look at the effect of broad legal protections for the unborn. The second part of this memo will summarize the research on the impact of incremental pro-life laws.

Part 1: The Impact of Broad Legal Protections for the Unborn

In both 2012 (Sedge et al.) and 2016 (Sedge et al.), the U.K. medical journal The Lancetreleased studies which presented abortion rate data from nearly every country in the world. Additionally, in March 2018 the Guttmacher Institute released a study entitled “Abortion Worldwide 2017: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access” (Singh et al.). The three studies are similar. They collect and analyze abortion data from a wide range of countries. They all find that global abortion rates have declined since the early 1990s. Additionally, all three studies present data which demonstrate that abortion rates are declining faster in developed regions of the world than in developing countries.

The cross-country comparisons in these studies typically receive a considerable amount of media attention. The findings purportedly indicate that countries where abortion is legal have similar abortion rates to countries where abortion was legally restricted. In short, abortion rates appear to be unaffected by whether abortion is legal or illegal. These findings receive a great deal of uncritical coverage from the mainstream media. Commentators and pundits frequently cite these studies to argue that pro-life laws are an ineffective strategy to prevent abortions from occurring.

However, a closer look at these three studies indicates that there is far less than meets the eye. According to Guttmacher, only seven developed countries have significant legal protections for the unborn.[1] Conversely, 94 developing countries have significant restrictions on abortion. Most of the countries that restrict abortion are located in Africa, South America, Latin America and the Middle East. These countries have much higher poverty rates and cannot be compared to industrialized democracies in North America and Europe.

Furthermore, in none of these three studies did the authors attempt to hold constant poverty rates, economic growth, demographic shifts, or any other countervailing factors that might affect the incidence of abortion. As such, these two Lancet studies and the 2018 Guttmacher study provide extremely little information about how the legal status of abortion actually impacts abortion rates.

The best study on how the legal status of abortion impacts abortion rates was authored by economists Phillip Levine and Douglas Staiger and appeared in The Journal of Law and Economics in 2004. Unlike the Lancet studies and the Guttmacher study, the authors considered how changes in abortion policy affected the incidence of abortion. After the fall of communism, many Eastern European countries shifted their policies regarding abortion. Specifically, abortion was largely illegal in Romania during the Cold War. However, starting in 1990, abortion on request became legal for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Albania and Bulgaria also liberalized their abortion laws in 1991 and 1989, respectively. Conversely, Poland, where abortion had been legal during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, enacted significant legal protections for the unborn in 1993.

In their study, Levine and Staiger used time series-cross sectional data to analyze how the legal status of abortion impacted abortion rates in a range of Eastern European countries. The authors hold constant economic growth, the inflation rate, and the age composition of women of childbearing age. Their findings provide overwhelming evidence that the incidence of abortion is affected by its legal status. They find that countries where abortion is legal only to save the mother’s life or for specific medical reasons have abortion rates that are only about five percent of the level in countries in which abortion is legal on request.

Furthermore, the results indicated that even modest abortion restrictions have an impact. Countries where abortion is legal only due to medical or social reasons have a 25 percent lower abortion rate than countries where abortion is available on request. This impressive dataset from a range of countries, many of which enacted policy changes regarding the legality of abortion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, clearly demonstrates that legal protections for the unborn save lives.

The Experience of the United States

Additionally, the experience of the United States is also instructive. Colorado was the first U.S. state to liberalize its abortion laws in 1967. The liberalization of abortion laws was debated in many state legislatures during the 1960s and by the end of 1970 abortion was broadly legal in five states: Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, and Washington. In particular, during the early 1970s, many women seeking abortions travelled to New York because New York did not have a residency requirement for abortion-seeking women and did not require a referral from an in-state physician. Research shows that about 58 percent of the abortions that took place in New York between 1971 and 1972 were performed on women from other U.S. states (Joyce, Tan, and Zhang 2012).

There was relatively little change in abortion policy at either the federal level or state level between the end of 1970 and 1973. However, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in January 1973 effectively legalized abortion on demand in the United States throughout all nine months of pregnancy. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clearly show that abortion rates in the United States increased in both the short term and the long term.

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Source: Christian Post