Abortion Restrictions Reduce Abortion

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In the last week two very different sources seem to be saying the same thing. Small restrictions on abortion at the state level have significantly reduced the number of abortions in this country. In an article at the Heritage Foundation site, University of Alabama political scientist Michael New has addressed one problem in arguments for this conclusion. It's unclear if laws restricting abortion cause a drop in abortions or an underlying factor explains both the drop in abortions and the election of those who would pass such restrictions. In this case that underlying factor might be a value change in the populace. New's study compares laws that pass (and thus reflect the value change) but get overturned by courts (which don't reflect value changes) with laws that pass and remain on the books. It turns out that, even taking into account value change, there is enough of a decrease in the number of abortions to justify thinking that abortion restrictions do reduce the number of abortions.

Dawn Johnsen, law professor at Indiana University and former lawyer for the Clinton Administration official and NARAL, complains at Slate about exactly this effect. She thinks the senators have focused on entirely the wrong question at the Alito hearings. We shouldn't care so much about whether he would vote to overturn Roe outright. What we should care about is whether he will continue to allow such ridiculous restrictions as Sandra Day O'Connor has allowed in the past, e.g. allowing parents to have some role in the weighty moral decisions of their morally immature children, not allowing people to make such a grave choice in the spur of the moment except in emergency situations, ensuring that women who seek abortion have been made fully aware of all the options, and restricting a procedure that my pro-choice Norwegian friend (who is extremely liberal on any ethical issue you can name) calls the most vile procedure he's ever heard of.

What's strange is that she thinks these restrictions limit abortions as much as a criminal ban would. What's also strange is that she thinks reducing the number of abortions is a bad thing, as if abortion is good incarnate. She further thinks that women have a right to having the government make it extremely easy for them to attain an abortion. Otherwise it wouldn't be immoral on the part of the government for it merely to be a fact that the closest abortion clinic for some people is hundreds of miles away, as if the government not only has an obligation to allow abortion but has some further obligation to make sure it happens for anyone who wants it. Remember that the government has no obligation to preserve my life at all costs, just an obligation to protect it to the best of its ability. It doesn't have to pay for expensive operations to save my life simply because my insurance won't cover it. It doesn't have to hire a bodyguard for me to prevent me from being mugged. So why does it have to ensure that anyone who might want an abortion should get one if the basis for the right to abortion is simply that it's supposed to be wrong to restrict abortion in certain kinds of cases? Besides, don't hospitals routinely perform abortions for any reasons that are genuinely medical and thus not merely for convenience? It's simply false that lack of a nearby clinic means the unavailability of abortion.

This confirms my repeated claim that many liberals on abortion don't really mean it when they say they want abortion safe, legal, and rare. My chief evidence for this is that they don't support laws on the very restrictions that would contribute to its rarity. How can you think rare is a good thing while acting as if it's immoral simply to reduce the number of abortions? Not everything Johnsen says is of that form, but enough of her dissatisfaction with these restrictions seems to stem purely from the fact that these laws reduce the number of abortions. It's as if the mere presence of a desire to have an abortion makes that abortion a good thing and thus makes the world better as a result. I'm the first to insist that for many pro-choice people abortion is viewed as a necessary evil, but that just doesn't seem to be how many pro-choice leaders see things, and it seems Dawn Johnsen is in the latter category. With that sort of view, I think she's just going to be making the pro-life case for us. Given the assumption of the ordinary moderate that abortion is bad but sometimes necessary, most (but not all) of what Johnsen says is going to make these laws sound good. They have the right effect given the moderate pro-choice goal. I can't see that as helping her cause, and I think it just reveals how out of step with ordinary people the NARAL mindset really is.

[Hat tips: Pro-Life Blogs and ACSBlog]

15 Comments

hey this is pretty cool but is it all true or all your opinion?

Um ... why is it impossible that someone's opinion could be true? That's a false dilemma.

I did give citations to where I got the information, and anyone who wants to evaluate what I say can look to the sources. As for what I then said based on that information, all it takes is to consider my reasoning. If it's good reasoning, then we should accept it. If it's not, we shouldn't.

hey thanks jeremy i guess you got my e-mail cuz now i know your name your e-mail sparked a suspicious warning of a virous

Have you seen Kevin Drum's article on this at the Washington Monthly? He points out that some of the biggest drops in abortions are in states that are NOT very restrictive. His take on the numbers breakdown:
"strongly suggests that the reduced abortion rate is mostly due to fewer unwanted pregnancies in the first place. If increased regulation were the prime driver, you'd be more likely to see the pregancy rate staying about the same while abortions drop, and you'd be more likely to see bigger drops in states with more regulation. But that hasn't been the case. So yes: better access to contraception, better education, and better access to the morning after pill seem to have made a difference over time. For anyone who's pro-life but not anti-sex, that ought to be good news."

(Hm, blockquote and links don't show in the preview, so I'm assuming they won't show in the final.)

Factoring in the morning after pill is already an assumption most pro-life people won't grant, since that pill acts as an abortifacient. If abortions are fewer because the human organism is simply killed at an earlier stage, how is that a whole lot better on pro-life principles?

It's not surprising that abortion drops are in states with less restrictive laws. Those are the blue states, and blue states are also less opposed to contraception. It doesn't mean the decreased restrictions are the cause of the drop in abortions.

Blockquote and links do indeed show in the comment, but you actually have to put them into the comment for them to show, which you seem not to have done.

There is scientific controversy as to whether the morning after pill is an abortifacient or not - here is one of the first few that popped up on a pubmed search :

"The accumulation of evidence, however, is that the mechanism of action of emergency contraception is to prevent ovulation and that it does not interfere with implantation."
So you might want to search and read before assuming it's an abortifacient. There is considered to be a small possibility that in a small number of cases that it might act as an abortifacient, but proof of that was lacking last time I checked. And of course, if it isn't an abortifacient, that changes your argument.

You're right about my comment - when they didn't show in the preview, I figured the extra code might gum things up and removed it. I hope it shows correctly this time.

For some reason I've been remembering all the news stories announcing the morning after pill when it came out as a chemical method of preventing implantation, as if that was the goal. Maybe that's not what they said, but somehow I've got no recollection of anything but that. I don't know how nothing I've read (and I've read a lot on both sides of this issue since then) has contradicted that. I'm not sure how that might have happened. But I'm not sure it undermines my point except by a matter of degree.

I was well aware of the people who question whether am ordinary contraceptive can function as an abortifacient, but I think most pro-life people, when presented with the possibility even with ordinary contraceptives, will consider it immoral to use the morning after pill. Most consider chemical contraceptives immoral once they consider the possibility that it could prevent implantation. So it doesn't actually change my argument unless it's demonstrated pretty clearly that it can't have that effect. A real risk is enough for the "moral status from conception" view to consider it serious negligence.

Do you then oppose the oral contraceptive pill in all circumstances?

For some reason I've been remembering all the news stories announcing the morning after pill when it came out as a chemical method of preventing implantation, as if that was the goal. Maybe that's not what they said, but somehow I've got no recollection of anything but that.
Depending on when you read about this, years ago it was thought more likely that implantation prevention was the mechanism than it is now. So your memory might be correct, but research has progressed since then.

Bringing all this back to the article posted, the key is that contraception and prevention of unwanted pregnancy may the most effective strategy for reducing abortions, rather than restrictive laws.

Oral contraceptives might be somewhat of a risk, but it's not clear. Those who think full moral status begins at conception should worry about it and perhaps use a condom as well. They might as well just use the condom, though, so I don't see the point. Not all pro-life people think full moral status begins at conception, and they might not think it's as much of a problem. I do think it's morally best to play it safe if you're not convinced of one of the less restrictive views.

I'm not saying it's impossible that contraception and prevention of unwanted pregnancy will reduce abortions, and I'm not saying it's impossible that they'll reduce abortions more than restrictive laws would (although I'm really skeptical of that claim). I don't think it follows that pro-lifers should merely rely on contraception and preventing unwanted pregnancy, because it's still extremely like that contraception and prevention of unwanted pregnancy together with restrictive laws will be even more effective at reducing abortions than mere contraception and prevention of unwanted pregnancy alone.

I'm not saying it's impossible that contraception and prevention of unwanted pregnancy will reduce abortions, and I'm not saying it's impossible that they'll reduce abortions more than restrictive laws would (although I'm really skeptical of that claim).
You may be skeptical, but you haven't refuted Kevin Drum's analysis. And it's a far cry from skeptical to your statement above:
This confirms my repeated claim that many liberals on abortion don't really mean it when they say they want abortion safe, legal, and rare. My chief evidence for this is that they don't support laws on the very restrictions that would contribute to its rarity.
That could be turned around, to point out that some who oppose abortions are unwilling to support measures that would reduce abortion - contraception and education.

I want abortions to be safe, legal and rare. I would be happiest were they a choice that was never selected. But I won't take that choice away from a woman - I'd rather give her better choices instead. And I'm 100% in favor of there being better choices: contraception, morning after pill, adoption, etc. But in the end, it's her choice, not mine.

You never linked to Drum's post, but I did manage to find it.

Has Drum adjusted for laws that restrict that get upheld by courts and laws that restrict that don't? That was my starting point in this post, and I don't see anything in his that addresses that issue. He simply compares states that have the laws with ones that don't, and that doesn't reflect the underlying values of the populace as much.

But the basic point about "safe, legal, and rare" follows regardless of this issue. People might easily care about reducing abortion by means of preventing unwanted pregnancy, but the question is whether that's enough to make abortion rare. I don't consider 19 abortions for every 1000 women all that rare. Almost all abortions are matters of convenience that could be prevented if people did prevent unwanted pregnancy, but education and availability of contraception don't make people act in accordance with reason in preventing pregnancies they don't want, and it's exactly those people who will continue to have the abortions that would prevent abortion from being rare.

What gets me about the disingenuous "safe, legal, and rare" line is that hardly anyone who uses it is willing to allow any abortion restrictions even if it's clear that the abortions being restricted aren't going to make things difficult for people to get an abortion if they are the educated, reasoning people who are supposed to be the target of all this education. Someone who is going to put off having an abortion until the last trimester is hardly the sort of person who will be more likely to use contraception if it's widely available and to avail themselves of education about preventing pregnancy.

I teach ethics classes in a pretty blue area of a very blue state. In my undergraduate classes, it's rare that I have more than a quarter of the students who are pro-life at the Catholic college I teach it, and often it's a good deal less than that at the private university I teach at. Nevertheless, I don't think even 10% take the extreme pro-choice view that abortion is ok even at very late stages and that restrictions against abortion are immoral no matter the restriction. This suggests to me that it isn't just availability of contraception and education about how to use it. It's the desire not to begin a pregnancy and then end it. That means people are becoming more moderated in their pro-choice views even in blue regions. But if that's true, then it may easily be a case of an underlying cause that explains both the change in contraception and the reduction in abortions rather than the former explaining the latter.

Pro-choicers are becoming much more moderate in their views but continue to elect extremist politicians like the two New York senators who continue to use this "safe, legal, and rare" rhetoric but never consider even the most widely-accepted of abortion restrictions that you'll find in most European countries (and 70% of the public supports increased restrictions). Then many of them complain that the U.S. is backward for allowing the death penalty when most of the world has abandoned it. I just have a hard time seeing Hillary Clinton ever caring about reducing abortion, because in her mind it's the most fundamental right a woman has. I don't see how such an absolutist view is compatible with a genuine motivation to want to reduce the cases of abortion that are widely recognized as the most obviously immoral, since those are the very cases that on the "safe, legal, and rare" view are the ones that are most clearly wrong and thus worth preventing even if it takes a law to do so. That's why it baffles me how someone can think mere education and availability of contraception are going to take the abortion rate down from a million a year to anything that's remotely in the category of being rare.

You are making a lot of statements here; can you back them up? For instance

Someone who is going to put off having an abortion until the last trimester is hardly the sort of person who will be more likely to use contraception if it's widely available and to avail themselves of education about preventing pregnancy.
Can you link to a study that supports this view of third trimester abortions?

I'm just noticing that the character traits involved in procrastinating with abortion are the same ones involved with not being careful not to get pregnant. You don't need a study to notice the following two facts:

(1) Those who have late term abortions because they procrastinate are likely not to be as careful with contraception for the same reasons.

(2) Those who have late term abortions because they aren't concerned about the moral status of the fetus making such an act wrong (or wrong enough to worry them) aren't as likely to be as concerned about getting pregnant in the first place because the moral consequences aren't high on their list.

That's just noticing that people do have character traits that often manifest themselves in different situations and that people also do have moral views that often display themselves in different circumstances. If you want to try to show with a study that people don't have somewhat consistent character traits and that people don't have the same moral views over the course of a nine-month period, go ahead and do so, but until then I find such claims entirely implausible.

The only other thing that remains would be cases that don't involve negligence, procrastination, and so on. Those, as far as I can tell, will almost always be medical cases involving serious birth defects discovered late in pregnancy and threats to the life of the mother, a twin (or set of multiple siblings gestating together), unusual cases of someone discovering she's pregnant in the seventh month because she was in a coma, and so on. But a third-trimester ban could indeed except such cases. I'm not sure why keeping abortion safe, legal, and rare requires prohibiting any such ban. But present such an idea to Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, or John Kerry, and you're going to have tremendous resistance.

On the morning after pill, here is a footnote in the introduction to the abortion unit in the applied ethics anthology I teach from (Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembaty, Social Ethics: Moral and Social Policy, 7th ed., 2007), p.9, n.7:

RU-486 is not to be confused with the "morning after" pill. RU-486 dislodges an embryo already implanted in the uterus; the "morning after" pill prevents implantation (although it may also prevent ovulation and fertilization).

This is hardly a partisan pro-life source, and it is indeed the most recent thing I had read on the subject before you started this conversation. I'm re-reading it now because I'm teaching on this tomorrow, and I noticed the footnote. It's especially noteworthy that its primary function, according to the footnote, is to prevent implantation, but preventing ovulation and fertilization are listed as potential effects, not the primary effect, and preventing implantation is presented as the primary effect, not a potential but unknown result. This is the opposite of what you were saying and what the Wikipedia entry says. The same reading also differs from what the Wikipedia entry focuses on with respect to fetal pain. I'm not sure what to make of that.

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