Some Democrats are now making an unusual argument about abortion: that a Democratic administration might actually reduce abortions more than a Republican administration.
On the surface, this seems preposterous. Republicans oppose abortion rights, Democrats support them. How could it possibly be that a Democratic approach would reduce abortion more?
It’s actually quite plausible under certain circumstances — though not, I must add, under the approach Barack Obama is currently taking.
Let me start with a basic point. If you look at abortion rates since Roe v. Wade you find something startling: during Democratic administrations (pro choice administrations) the average annual abortion rate is virtually identical to that under Republican administrations. Many factors help explain that but it does force us to conclude that there’s not a simple connection between whether you have a Republican president and lower abortion rates.
When Democrats refer to an “abortion reduction strategy” they mostly mean efforts that keep abortion legal but help prevent pregnancy through family planning and/or making it easier for women who do get pregnant to carry the baby to term. (A few examples: Matthew 25 Network and Democrats for Life’s 95-10 strategy)
A new study indicates that a variety of non-coercive measures could have a real impact on abortion rates. Two social scientists recently looked at abortion rates in different states during the period in the 1990s when abortion rates were declining. They concluded that economics did affect women’s decisions (what has long been suspected) and that therefore social welfare policies can have demonstrable effect. For instance, if you increase payments for Women, Infants and Children, more women come to think they’ll have the means to birth and raise a child. They also found that when male employment improved, that reduced the abortion rate as well. Conversely, if you have Medicaid funding for abortions – something Obama supports — that increases the rate of abortion.
The authors concluded that the right package of financial incentives could therefore reduce the number of abortions by several hundred thousand.
Pro-life activists will occasionally say that they support these social-spending-based abortion reduction efforts, too. (along with efforts to pass legal restrictions). And at the margins, that’s true.
But as a practical matter they usually ignore and sometimes even discourage such efforts. A draft version of the Republican platform this year included the following sentence: “We invite all persons of good will, whether across the political aisle or within our party, to work together to reduce the incidence of abortion.” Religious conservatives deleted the sentence. Connie Mackey of the FRCaction told me there were two reasons. First, “that language sounded like Obama had written it himself.” And second, it sent mixed messages. “It doesn’t make sense to say the party wants to reduce abortions if you’re against abortion.”
Another reason pro-life advocates have either ignored or underemphasized Democratic-style abortion reduction is that to some degree, they view themselves players on a larger team. Think about one of Connie Mackey’s reason for eliminating the abortion reduction language form the Republican platform: it sounded too much like Obama. Wrong team.
Being part of winning coalitions has meant that pro-life politics has closely aligned with conservative ideology in general (and pro choice ideology has with liberalism). For reasons of sincere ideological conviction, many pro-life activists tend to be highly skeptical of the idea that increased social spending — which many had assumed causes moral decline — might help reduce abortion rates. It would be like a feminist being told that the best way to increase women’s pay would be doubling defense spending. Not impossible, but pretty unlikely.
Just as important, the pro-life movement has always been somewhere between ambivalent and hostile to birth control and sex education. I’m not one who believes that all unintended pregnancies occur because of a scarcity of birth control. But there is solid evidence that greater sex education – including abstinence education — and birth control does lead to fewer unintended pregnancies and therefore abortions. According to an Alan Guttmacher Institute study, 46% who had abortions had not used contraception during the month they got pregnant, largely for reasons of ignorance. 33% had perceived themselves to be at low risk for pregnancy. 32% had had concerns about contraceptive methods. 8% had never used contraceptions. All in all, “about half of unintended pregnancies occur among the 11% of women who are at risk for unintended pregnancy but are not using contraceptives.”
Yet pro-life groups have not pushed sex ed or birth control. One reason is that the groups that do the most work promoting prevention – such as Planned Parenthood – also promote abortion, so funding one often means funding the other.
Some oppose birth control methods because they believe them to abortafacients, preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterine wall. That means that they are terminating pregnancies after “conception,” a.k.a. fertilization. Since most pro-life activists believe that a life at day one of pregnancy is morally equal to a life at month nine, then the possibility that some birth control would abort one-day old embryos makes it a non-starter.
Another reason they haven’t stressed family planning is that they’re trying to keep together a political coalition. The pro-life forces were for years led by the Catholic Church, which set the philosophical underpinnings for the movement. The Church has always believed that birth control was immoral because it encouraged non-procreative sex and snuffed a potential life.
Because of the need to preserve the coalition, it’s inconceivable therefore that any pro-contraception-pro-life leaders would ever pose this horrific question to the Catholic Church: is it possible that your opposition to birth control over the years has increased the number of abortions? Nor is it likely that they would say to their conservative evangelical compatriots: isn’t it possible that your resistance to sex education, has led to more abortions?
(By the way, if you have a hard time believing that the pro-life community, like the pro-choice community, routinely compromises its principles for reasons of political tactics and coalition-building consider this: while they oppose stem cell research, they have not campaigned against fertility treatments which cause the creation and destruction of most human embryos. Why not? Because too many pro-life people have had fertility treatments or because they know that opposing it would turn public opinion against pro life movement.)
The Limits of the Current Pro Life Strategy
So what? you might be thinking. The pro life forces have ignored abortion reduction in favor of abortion elimination — a much more desirable result if you’re a fetus.
But the traditional pro-life strategy has not resulted in any difference in abortion rates during Republican administrations. Why?
In general, pro life activists have followed a two-pronged strategy that emphasizes a) high-impact but politically unpopular steps and b) low-impact but politically popular steps. An example of their high-impact-low-likelihood efforts: having the Republican platform endorse a Constitutional amendment banning all abortion in all states at all levels of gestation. It certainly would cut the number of abortions but it’s not going to happen.
Efforts to require parental consent have borne more fruit. They provide tactical wins for the pro life movement and there is evidence that they help reduce the abortion rates among some teens. But teens account for a minority of abortions.
Meanwhile, pro-life forces push hard on issues like late term abortion which are morally egregious. They hope that these examples help turn public opinion against abortion in general, and they may have: public opinion has become more concerned about abortion since the 1980s. What these efforts don’t do is directly reduce the number of abortions very much, since far less than 1% of abortions are late-term.
On balance, the evidence is strong, therefore, that as long as Roe v. Wade is on the books, a comprehensive abortion reduction strategy of the sort advocated by progressive pro-life activists could reduce abortions more than that approach traditional taken by the pro-life community.
But what if Roe v. Wade is overturned? We may be just one Supreme Court justice away from such an outcome. Surely that would lead to a massive drop in abortions, no?
Not necessarily — because the states where public opinion is pro-life are already the states with lower abortion rates. So when those states ban abortion, the impact on abortion rates won’t be dramatic. Joseph Wright, a visiting professor at Notre Dame, estimated that if abortion bans were enacted in states where a majority of the population is now pro life, that would lead to a 10% reduction in abortions nationally.
This is a possibility acknowledged by neither pro-life forces (which have placed all their eggs in the Roe basket) nor pro-choice forces (which like to cast such an event as doomsday).
So we’re left with this stunning possibility: a comprehensive abortion reduction agenda of the sort advocated by pro-life progressives could reduce abortions by twice as much as overturning Roe v Wade.
Now I’m fully aware that studies like this are very squishy. Perhaps the abortion reduction agenda wouldn’t save as many as the studies claim; perhaps overturning Roe would save more. But at a minimum it’s a far closer call than pro-life activists would admit.
Now, a big caveat: Barack Obama has not endorsed the full slate of abortion reduction measures described above. Yes, he supports funding for pregnancy prevention and maternal health care. But at the same time, he supports Medicaid funding for abortion — which would likely increase the numbers. And he supports the Freedom of Choice Act, which would wipe out state laws restricting abortion, including (probably) laws requiring parental notification of teens.
The upshot: progressive pro-life groups can make a persuasive case that their approach would reduce abortion as much if not more than the traditional Republican approach. However, Barack Obama has severely undermined his ability to make such an argument.
On the other hand, those conscientiously concerned about reducing abortion should not view support or opposition of Roe v. Wade as the only — or even the best — measure of one’s concern on life issues.