January 27, 2006

Do Pro-Life Policies Ever Work?

Ampersand has a good post, complete with statistics, pointing out what should be the obvious fact that criminalizing abortion has very little effect on abortion rates. Among other things, he points out that the abortion and birth rates in the years before Roe v. Wade came down are nearly identical to the rates afterwards. The main difference, obviously, is that abortion was much safer and easier after Roe. Something similar is going on in this old New York Times story about Latin America, noting that the region has "the developing world's highest rate of abortion" despite having "some of the world's most stringent abortion laws"—in many cases, women discovered that overdosing on a cheap ulcer medication would do the trick, albeit with risks.

Now a number of pro-choice politicians in the United States—Hillary Clinton being the most prominent—have adopted this way of framing things, arguing that pro-choice policies, combined with better contraception, safe-sex education, and economic support for single mothers, will do more to reduce abortion than, say, overturning Roe. In large part, that's true, and it seems like a politically savvy way to rally support for choice, but sometimes I wonder whether the argument could be undercut in important ways, and whether it's really the best thing to focus on. Wbat if, after all, some of these pro-life policies did help reduce abortion or unwanted pregnancies, even at the margins?

This week, Time (which, for incidental reasons, is the only magazine I get at home and hence the only print magazine I ever actually read) had an important article on abortion restrictions in Missouri that put a spin I've never heard before on why abortion rates dropped so sharply in the Clinton years:
The reason for the declines is a matter of dispute. Economic growth, better contraception and safe-sex practices probably all contribute to the trend. But a 2004 study by researcher Michael J. New for the conservative Heritage Foundation found that states that have adopted laws regulating abortion experienced a larger decline than those that have not. Reductions are particularly steep, he found, in states that restricted the use of Medicaid funds to pay for poor women's abortions and those that required pre-abortion counseling about fetal development and abortion risks.
New's study might be totally off-base—the Heritage Foundation isn't exactly known for unbiased work, and I'd be interested to see critiques (for instance, the difference could be largely accounted for by the fact that women are crossing state lines to get abortions)—but then again, it might well be true. I'll plead agnosticism for the sake of argument. I've never heard any pro-life politicians cite these statistics, but it seems like a fairly easy counter to the claim that liberal policies are in fact the best way to reduce abortion. Now granted, it doesn't take much to see the problems with New's argument. Here's Time again:
Missouri's new restriction concerning minors is already having an impact. Missouri has become the first state to extend its parental-notification law beyond its state line, a move aimed across the Mississippi River at the Hope Clinic, a low-slung building that sits amid a vast industrial park in Granite City, Ill. A recent morning found a security guard posted out front and a waiting room filled with anxious-looking young women, along with a few boyfriends, husbands and children. Because Illinois has no parental-notification law, Hope Clinic had been the easiest option for Missouri teens seeking to get an abortion without telling their parents. But the new Missouri law that makes it possible to sue anyone who provides an abortion to a Missouri resident under age 18 without written consent of a parent has Hope demanding proof of age of all prospective patients.

Hope counselor Zoila Rendon-Ochoa recently received a call from a St. Louis woman who spoke only Spanish and identified herself as an illegal Mexican immigrant working as a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen. In her ninth week of pregnancy, she had left Mexico with no birth certificate; she had no driver's license or other identification. "I can't have this baby," she pleaded. Recalls Rendon-Ochoa: "Before the law, we could have given her an abortion. She kept saying to me, 'You can trust me. I'm 24,' but we couldn't prove it. She asked me, 'Where do I go now?' I couldn't tell her. I would guess that she carried the baby to term."
The goal of "reducing abortions" is very obviously (for liberals, at least) a hollow one if it comes about because more women are being forced to carry their pregnancies to term. And this is exactly what we're likely to see more of in the coming years. If Samuel Alito gets confirmed, the Supreme Court still won't have the votes to overturn Roe, provided Anthony Kennedy stays on the side of angels. But as Dawn Johnsen points out, the Roberts Court will certainly support continued state efforts to "hollow out" Roe by imposing increasingly stringent "side" restrictions. These restrictions might very well prove effective in reducing the total number of abortions in America. They might even deter people from having sex and prevent unwanted pregnancies, if Jonathan Klick's research is correct, and that's the ultimate "liberal anti-abortion" goal. Even so, they're wrong.

Very few people in this country—even in the pro-life movement—believe that abortion is murder. They simply don't. An overwhelming majority of Americans support abortion in the case of rape or incest, and it's impossible for anyone to believe that "murder" of a fetus is fine simply because of the circumstances in which it, through no fault of its own, was conceived.

The only issue, when it comes down to it, is why women get abortions. Most people strongly believe that being a victim of rape is such a difficult and blameless situation for a woman to be in that forcing her to give birth on top of it is wrong and perverse. But what else counts as a difficult and blameless situation? Already having four other kids and no way to take care of them? Living in an environment unfit to raise children in? Being a hormone-crazed teenager who makes a mistake? Should they be forced to give birth? When is doing so wrong and perverse? Should the government decide which women are and aren't blameless for their personal decisions? The actual number of abortions is a red herring here. The ability of the government to control the moral behavior of women is the main question. All restrictions do that. And we know that people like Samuel Alito would like to go very, very far in that direction.

At any rate, this is all by way of saying that the autonomy argument has always struck me as much stronger, and more durable, then the argument that pro-life policies don't work. (And yes, I know the former isn't a particularly original argument to make.) Although one could argue that pro-life policies usually don't work precisely because women the world over will go to great lengths, risking sickness or even death, to preserve their autonomy. As the president once said in quite another context, "there is no shortage of Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives to secure" their freedom. Right, similar principle.

Continue reading "Do Pro-Life Policies Ever Work?"
-- Brad Plumer 4:50 PM || ||