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Do legal restrictions reduce abortions?

Christians on both the left and the right of the political spectrum often agree that abortion is wrong. However, Christians on the left routinely assert that legal restrictions do not actually succeed in reducing the number of abortions. In support of this claim, I have noticed several of my Christian friends cite the following infographic from the Guttmacher Institute:

The data presented in this infographic comes from a 2016 study which appeared in The Lancet, a reputable medical journal. Nevertheless, the infographic fails to demonstrate that abortion laws are ineffective. Consider the following three points:

1) The infographic compares a number derived from official records of legal abortions with a number derived from estimates of illegal abortions.

As the authors of the Lancet study note, "In countries where abortion is legal on most grounds and all providers are required to report all abortions performed, official statistics should closely reflect true incidence." But what about those countries in which abortion is highly restricted? The authors claim that in such countries, reported abortions represent only "a small fraction of all abortions done in these countries." But in the absence of official records, how do they know this? How do they know how many illegal abortions were performed? Here the authors describe their method as follows: "We identified nationally representative studies from online searches of published and unpublished literature." This literature includes "studies that use an indirect approach to estimate abortion incidence in developing countries." (The "countries where abortion is prohibited altogether or permitted only to save a woman's life" are almost all developing countries. See the map cited by the authors.) Of course, such estimates are not nearly as reliable as official reports. As the authors themselves acknowledge, "Reliable estimates of abortion incidence in the developing world are scarce and additional research in this area is needed to improve our ability to monitor and more accurately estimate trends in this region."

2) The infographic compares abortion rates in developing countries with abortion rates in developed countries.

As noted above, the "countries where abortion is prohibited altogether or permitted only to save a woman's life" are almost all developing countries. This fact renders the Lancet study virtually useless in assessing the effectiveness of legal restrictions in the developed world. First, as detailed in Gary Haugen's heartbreaking book, The Locust Effect, law enforcement in developing countries is often inept and rife with corruption. A doctor in Bangladesh might have no trouble performing illegal abortions on the side, but it hardly follows that a doctor in New York would be equally successful in evading the law. Moreover, we should not expect the rate of unplanned pregnancies in the developing world to mirror the rate of unplanned pregnancies in the developed world. On the contrary, given the impact of factors such as poverty, education, and access to contraceptives, we should expect the number of unplanned pregnancies to be higher in the developing world than in the developed world. Thus the Lancet study's conclusion that abortion rates are roughly the same may in fact reflect the effectiveness of legal restrictions in reducing abortion!

3) The infographic ignores more reliable studies which indicate that abortion restrictions do result in fewer abortions.

In an article for the National Review, Kyle Blanchette points to several studies which indicate that abortion restrictions do result in fewer abortions. As Blanchette observes, these studies offer more reliable assessments of the effect of abortion laws than the Lancet study discussed above. First, these studies track live births. Thus they do not depend on estimates of illegal abortions. Second, these studies consider the effects of abortion legislation on one region. Thus they do not depend on comparing developing countries with developed countries.

  • A 1999 study published in the American Journal of Public Health concluded that "a complete recriminalization of abortion nationwide could result in 440,000 additional births per year."

  • A 2002 study published in Population Research and Policy Review found that "abortion funding cutoffs for poor women in North Carolina" resulted in "reduced abortions and increased births."

  • A 2009 study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health found that abortion access was "associated with lower birthrates among minors."

  • A 2016 study published in Studies in Family Planning found that the legalization of abortion in Mexico City "appears to have contributed to lower fertility [i.e. lower birthrates] in Mexico City compared to other metropolitan areas and prior trends."

In conclusion, I see no reason to accept the counter-intuitive claim that legal restrictions on abortion do not reduce abortion rates.


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