Do laws work to stop abortion?
"Restricting access to abortion," tweets the World Health Organization (WHO), "does not reduce the number of abortions."
Supporters of legalized abortion frequently make this claim. Legalizing abortion doesn't increase the number of abortions, they say. It just makes them safer for women. Likewise, bans or limits on abortion don't prevent abortions from happening. They only make the abortions that happen more dangerous.
The idea that abortion restrictions are incompatible with a high standard of maternal health is demonstrably false. But what about the claim that restrictions are ineffective? Do laws actually work to stop abortion?
Abortion laws are effective
Abortion advocates like WHO point to places that don't permit the practice and yet (according to often-speculative estimates) have abortion rates similar to those of places with abortion on demand. "Women living under the most restrictive laws ... have abortions at about the same rate as those living where the procedure is available without restriction as to reason," concludes a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion industry's primary research organization.
Does this mean that laws don't make a difference?
No, because that conclusion doesn't take into account obvious confounding variables. The abortion-prohibiting countries with high abortion estimates are developing nations. (As Guttmacher acknowledges, "The vast majority ... of countries with such highly restrictive laws are in developing regions.") One cannot, therefore, simply compare the abortion rates in these regions to the abortion rates in wealthy, developed regions. That's like apples and oranges.
To get a much better idea of the effectiveness of abortion laws, one could compare developmentally similar countries, some with legalized abortion and some without, or one could compare a country when it has legalized abortion to that same country when it doesn't.
Take Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland. Britain permits abortion while the Irish jurisdictions have prohibited it (though Ireland voted recently to eliminate constitutional protection for unborn children). A 2013 study in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons found that the abortion rate in England and Wales was three times higher than the rate in Ireland and 5.5 times higher than in Northern Ireland—even accounting for the Irish women who traveled to Britain or elsewhere to have abortions.
Consider the United States. Illegal abortion estimates were mostly unreliable, but after the nationwide legalization of abortion in January 1973 (it had already been legalized or partially legalized in a number of states), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 615,831 abortions that year. The annual total then shot up 111 percent by 1980. The abortion rate rose 79 percent during the same period.
Or consider a developing country like Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government amended its abortion law to permit abortion in broader circumstances and then worked to expand access to the procedure. The result? According to estimates from a study in the journal International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health (published by Guttmacher), the number of abortions in Ethiopia increased 60 percent from 2008 to 2014. The abortion rate rose 30 percent.
An important study in the Journal of Law and Economics analyzed data from numerous Eastern European countries that changed their abortion laws after the Cold War. Some of those countries legalized abortion, while Poland, after decades of permitting abortion, enacted legal protection for unborn children. The study controlled for economic and demographic variables.
What did it find? "On the basis of all available abortion data," the authors write, "countries in which abortion is legal only to save the mother's life or for specific medical reasons have abortion rates that are only about 5 percent of the level observed in countries in which abortion is legal on request."
Protecting unborn children by law makes a massive difference.
Limited abortion laws are effective
In the decades since the legalization of abortion in the United States, full protection for unborn children has not been politically or legally possible. So pro-life advocates have worked to enact measures that are more limited. Do these modest pro-life laws make any difference?
Definitely. Take restrictions or bans on taxpayer funding of abortion. The evidence is overwhelming that these laws reduce the incidence of abortion. A literature review by Guttmacher concludes, based on 22 different studies, that "approximately one-fourth of women who would have Medicaid-funded abortions instead give birth when this funding is unavailable." The Hyde Amendment, which prohibits most federal funding of abortion, has prevented more than two million abortions, according to a 2016 analysis.
Take parental involvement laws. Numerous studies show that these measures reduce the rate of abortion among minors. A study in the American Journal of Public Health, for example, found that the minor abortion rate in Minnesota dropped 28 percent in the years immediately following enactment of Minnesota's parental notification law (the abortion rate did not decline among women ages 20-44, who were unaffected by the law).
Informed consent laws can also reduce abortions. The most popular type of informed consent law (the kind upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision) leads to "statistically significant reductions to both the abortion rate and ratio whenever Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) abortion data are analyzed," according to a 2014 study published in State Politics & Policy Quarterly.
Pro-life laws like these have substantially contributed to the long-term abortion decline in the United States.
Laws save lives
Laws affect behavior. They encourage people to act a certain way. Abortion-related laws, in particular, affect the availability and costs of abortion, factors that influence decision-making. Laws also can shape citizens' attitudes or beliefs about an act—they have a teaching effect that, in turn, influences the way people behave.
Pro-life laws affect behavior by preventing the killing of human beings in the womb. "Overall, the existing academic research paints a very clear picture," concludes social scientist Michael J. New in a recent overview. "Legal protections for unborn children reduce abortion rates and save lives."
People sometimes break abortion laws, of course, just as people sometimes break laws against theft or tax fraud. That's especially true when a law is poorly designed or enforced or when there are societal factors that reduce its effectiveness. But such problems are not a good reason to get rid of the law. They are a good reason to improve it.
After all, if unborn children are valuable members of the human family, then justice and equality require that society protect their basic human rights, including their right not to be intentionally killed.
No purpose of government is more fundamental than that.
This article appears in the June 2018 issue of NRL News.