More on Laws and Abortion: A Response to Bad Catholic

More on Laws and Abortion: A Response to Bad Catholic November 3, 2012

Marc of Bad Catholic, also on Patheos, has started a series of posts responding to my article on the pro-life movement. I’ve just finished reading the first one, and am interested in seeing more of what he has to say in the future. I want to take a moment to respond to his first post, in which he addressed whether or not banning abortion lowers the abortion rate.

He starts by quoting what I quoted from a 2008 study in the Lancet:

Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, the abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America—regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds.

He then asks the following:

This requires careful thought. The study is not claiming to have established causal relation between laws against abortion and high abortion rates. It merely says that laws restricting abortion are not associated with low abortion rates, and cites three countries as evidence for this claim. If the abortion laws are not having any effect, what is causing high abortion rates in Africa and Latin America, while abortion rates in Western Europe remain low?

This, quite simply, was the point I was trying to make in my post. It’s not banning abortion that has made the rates of abortion in western Europe the lowest in the world, so what is it? The question those in the pro-life movement should be asking is this: What is the most effective way to bring down the number of abortions that take place? The fact that other factors seem to play a much greater role in affecting the abortion rate globally indicates that if pro-lifers want to bring down the abortion rate they would do well to step back from their protests of Roe and their attempts to make abortion illegal and perhaps try to discover why abortion rates are the lowest in the world in western Europe, which is also probably the most sexually liberalized area of the world. What, quite simply, is their secret?

Marc correctly points to poverty as being one of the things that keeps the abortion rates in places like Africa so high, despite the fact that most of the countries there have banned the practice. But rather than following up on this thought he jumps to another thought:

This means that, if we want to understand the effects of abortion laws on abortion rates, we cannot look at countries with vastly different economic status. Since abortion is often motivated by poverty, it is not a fair comparison, especially considering the astronomical difference in economic status between places like Africa, Latin America, and Western Europe. We will instead have to look at the abortion rates in places of similar wealth, but with the same difference in abortion law. Make sense?

I think what is missing here is that my question was not primarily “how do abortion laws affect abortion rates” but rather “what is the most effective way to decrease the number of abortions being performed.” The fact that the countries in the statistics I examined had huge economic differences, and that “abortion is often motivated by poverty,” was therefore not something that got in the way of my thought process, but rather one of the most important points I gleaned from the data. Rather than follow up on why abortion rates are so high in some parts of the world and so low in others, Marc moves on to compare abortion rates and abortion laws in the various states in the U.S.

Before moving on, let me show you what some thought on the poverty issue reveals. 42% of women in the U.S. who obtain abortions live below the federal poverty level, and an additional 27% live slightly above it (source). That same year, the total percentage of Americans in poverty was 13.2% (source). (Let me know if you find statistics on the percentage of people between 100% and 200% of the federal poverty level in 2008 to compare to the second figure, as I couldn’t get my hands on that number.) This makes sense when you consider that 75% of women who get an abortion in the U.S. report that they could not afford to carry the pregnancy to term and raise the resulting baby. Remember, too, that 60% of women who have abortions in the U.S. already have at least one child. Poverty clearly remains a significant factor behind abortion, not just in places like Africa but also in places like the U.S., and that fighting poverty by means of better social safety nets, especially for parents, is an extremely important way to bring down the number of abortions that take place.

Marc has this to say about the Guttmacher Institute’s study of global abortion rates:

So why, we must ask, would educated people make a study comparing the abortion rates of countries of radically unequal wealth? Why, if poverty is a factor motivating abortion, was poverty ignored? Why does Anne suggest that if we want to be pro-life, we should look to less restrictive laws on abortion, not more? I wish, I wish, I wish I didn’t have to sound like a conspiracy theorist here, but the study has a strong motivation to ignore the truth and to lie to Anne’s face.

First of all, it wasn’t and I didn’t. Namely, the study was merely looking at abortion rates across the globe. It was not and did not ignore poverty. It merely stated the abortion rate in each country, and also noted the restrictions on abortion in each country. No one looks at the differences between the rate in places like Africa, South America, and Western Europe without knowing that there is an economic difference between those areas. Also, I never said that making abortion legal results in fewer abortions or that banning abortion results in more abortions. What I suggested instead was that laws are not the primary factor on whether abortion rates are high or low, that there are other factors instead, things like birth control and, yes, poverty. What I said was that the disparity in things like economic conditions and access to birth control across these areas, when looked at in tandem with laws against abortion and abortion rates, reveals that those who want to decrease the abortion rate should not be focusing on laws but rather on access to birth control and comprehensive social safety nets that offset the problems of poverty. Maybe I could have been clearer in my original piece, but this is the point I was trying to make.

Now I would like to address Marc’s suggestion that the Guttmacher Institute is “lying to my face.” This thing he is doing, I remember doing it too. Basically, you dismiss any organizations on the other side as biased and therefore wave any fact or statistic they have away without consideration. I get that. I’ve seen people on all sides do that. But I don’t think that thing is a good thing. I think that it has contributed to a situation where each side has their own “facts” and any discussion becomes so polarized it can’t even begin to take place. I try not to do it. If the Heritage Institute publishes a study, I may be suspicious  but rather than simply rejecting it as biased because it comes from a right-wing think tank I prefer to look at the study or numbers to figure out if it can be trusted or not, or whether its reasoning went astray somewhere or it forgot to control for some variable or is misinterpreting the findings of some other study. What Marc is saying is that the Guttmacher Institute’s study that measured the abortion rate in each country is wrong because the Guttmacher Institute is pro-reproductive rights, but I don’t see him backing that claim up with any evidence that the study’s numbers are flawed.

But there’s more than this as well. The study may be a Guttmacher Institute study, but it was actually published in the Lancet, a highly-respected peer-reviewed British medical journal. In arguing that this study is somehow wrong, Marc has to essentially suggest that the scientific process is broken. Marc says “I wish, I wish, I wish I didn’t have to sound like a conspiracy theorist here” and then does just that. I get it. I used to think this way too, especially when I was a young earth creationist. But now, as an academic working on a PhD, I have a better idea of how the scientific process works. When a study drawing a link between vaccines in autism that was published in the Lancet a decade ago turned out to be using bad data, the scientific community conclusively showed that the article was based on bad numbers and that the facts actually disproved its thesis, and the Lancet then withdrew it. This is how science works. If the Guttmacher Institute’s numbers are bad, well, they need to and will be contested in the field of science.

And remember that the Guttmacher Institute’s study simply prevents abortion statistics for each country, as well as recording the number of abortion restrictions in each country. What someone does with the study – what they use it to argue – is separate from the bare facts of abortion rates and countries’ legal codes.

Anyway, Marc goes on to examine the rates and laws in the various states. I found this section quite interesting. He states that:

In general, states with laws restricting abortion tend to have lower abortion rates than states with liberal abortion laws.

But then he makes an excellent point.

It seems reasonable to claim that when economic factors are roughly equal, restrictions on abortion are associated with lower abortion rates. Is this always the case? No. Are laws the primary factor influencing abortion rates? No. In fact, I believe that as often as a law contributes to a woman choosing an alternative to abortion, the law results from general opposition to abortion. When economic factors are roughly equal, it is the ideology of the individuals within the state that truly determines the abortion rate.

I had not even thought of this before, but Marc is right. It is quite possible, even probable perhaps, that the entire reason abortion rates are in general (though as Marc finds, not quite always) lower in states that have more abortion restrictions is that those states have a higher percentage of people who are personally against abortion and therefore choose not to abort when faced with unplanned pregnancies, thus driving the abortion rate down. I find this suggestion fascinating. I’m going to past some images here for you all to look at make of what you will.

First, abortion laws by state:

Next, abortion rate by state:

Then percentage of Catholics:

And percentage of evangelicals:

I am going to guess that high evangelical populations would be more likely to correlate with high abortion restrictions and low abortion rates than high Catholic populations given the high number of nominal but not practicing Catholics, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, back to Marc’s post. After acknowledging that we can’t really tell between the effect people’s views have on the abortion rate and the effect laws have on the abortion rate, Marc says this:

The pro-life movement should focus primarily on influencing the culture, on creating a respect for life from the ground up, on providing alternative solutions for women in crisis pregnancies, on convincing others of the scientifically verified reality of the unique human life that is the embryo, and on instilling in the world a greater love for the child. These convictions should become laws in the democratic sense — a popular change of heart should blossom into a popular change of law.

I am very glad that Marc, unlike most of the pro-lifers among whom I had experience with growing up, does not see banning abortion as his primary focus. But I am not sure if he realizes the extent to which his own movement deals in coercion rather than persuasion. Picketing abortion clinics and harassing women trying to enter is not “creating a respect for life.” The lies told at crisis pregnancy centers about things like links between depressionbreast cancer, and abortion run contrary to Marc’s rhetorical embrace of “scientifically verified reality.” What the pro-life movement currently lacks is a good dose of compassion. Trying to scare or harass women out of having abortions are not a good way to create “a popular change of heart.”

We have a problem in this culture with rhetorically embracing the importance of children but being unwilling to back that up in practice. Does Marc support policies that help parents balance work and parenthood, including parental leave and subsidized childcare? Does Marc support improved public education, an improvement that involves not high stakes testing but rather a greater trust in our teachers and a willingness to amply fund the education of our nation’s greatest resource, its children? Does Marc support greater welfare provision for needy single mothers and families? The answer to all of this may be “yes,” but the point I am trying to make is that creating a world with a “greater love for this child” includes more than just handing around replicas of fetuses at your church youth group and it includes more than just talking about what a “gift” children are.

Marc finishes with this:

So to summarize: Anne’s initial claim, that the pro-life movement is mistaken in its attempts to enact laws restricting and ultimately banning abortion, based as it is on a bad, inconclusive and illogical quote taken from a highly doubtful study, and countered as it is by our previous comparison of the abortion rates of economically equal states with more or less restrictions on abortion, is false. However, to say that this means that restricting laws directly lower abortion rates would be a jump, as it could be equally true that opposition to abortion within a given state creates those laws, and the subsequent low abortion rate. More research is needed. Anne does, intentionally or not, point out that legal action should not take primacy in the pro-life movement, and in this she is correct: Change the mind of the people, and let the people change their laws.

In other words, Marc does not really take issue with what I actually said. The pro-life movement is mistaken in making attempts to ban abortion the primary focus of its efforts, and Marc himself admits this. As Marc himself says, “to say that … restricting laws directly lower abortion rates would be a jump.” That is my point exactly. The pro-life movement is currently acting as though the way to save babies is to ban abortion – note for example the huge focus on overturning Roe. But, as Marc agrees, there is no conclusive evidence that banning abortion will actually decrease the rate of abortions that take place. The focus, if one wants to save babies, should not be on laws restricting abortion. The focus should be elsewhere. As Marc says, once again, “legal action should not take primacy in the pro-life movement.” Once again, exactly.

I want to finish by focusing on where Marc says the focus should be, because this is where I think we have a serious disagreement. To suggest that the focus should be to “change the mind of the people,” coming right after his emphasis on the correlation between poverty and high abortion rates, strikes me as beyond strange. And of course, there is the correlation Marc did not mention – the areas with the highest abortion rates are the areas where birth control is least available, and the areas with the lowest abortion rates are those where birth control is most available. (Anyone who wants to suggest that birth control actually increases the abortion rate because of its high failure rate has to somehow explain how sexually liberal western Europe, with its high rates of birth control use and legalized abortion, has the lowest abortion rates in the world.)

In focusing on changing minds, Marc indicates that he wants to bring down the number of abortions that occur by convincing women who have unplanned pregnancies or will have unplanned pregnancies in the future that they should be happy to be pregnant, should see abortion as murder, and should carry their pregnancies to term regardless of whether they are financially capable of doing so (he mentions that crisis pregnancy centers should help women in this situation, but as I’ve pointed out things like a free crib or free diapers aren’t actually the chief expenses in raising an unplanned child).

My goal, in contrast, is to prevent unplanned pregnancies from occurring and to ensure that every woman who wants to carry her pregnancy to term has the means to do so (remember that 75% of those who abort list financial reasons as a factor in their decision). I would like women to be able to plan their pregnancies so that every pregnancy is a wanted pregnancy and improve our country’s social institutions so that every woman can afford to raise children with dignity. I would actually venture a guess that these things would do more to reduce abortion rates than would Marc’s efforts to change minds. They would certainly do more to improve the quality of life of both women and children. I would like to see Marc explain why he doesn’t mention enacting a better social safety net for families and children or preventing unplanned pregnancies from occurring as key strategies to lowering the number of abortions that occur, because personally, these seem to me to be the clearest, most compassionate, and most effective ways to do so.

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