One of the hot topics at several convention events was whether the Democratic Party could be for abortion rights and simultaneously take the lead in reducing the number of abortions. It sounds like a contradiction, because the abortion debate has so far focused on whether there ought to be legal restrictions.
Smack into the middle of this debate comes a new study commissioned by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, a progressive and antiabortion group. Conducted by political science professors at Penn State and Georgetown, the study concludes that government social spending and economic conditions have a greater affect on abortion rates than restrictions like parental consent laws. This would seem to provide dramatic reinforcement for Barack Obama’s suggestion that providing support for pregnant women could substantially reduce abortion. However, other findings suggest that policies that Sen. Barack Obama supports – such as Medicaid funding for abortion – actually increase the abortion rate.

Dramatic Drop in the 1990s
The report, by Joseph Wright, assistant professor of political science at Penn State University and Michael Bailey, associate professor at Georgetown University, focused on figuring out why abortion rates dropped dramatically in the 1990s. They looked at welfare policy, aid to pregnant women, Medicaid and other factors.
They found:
* States that spent more on welfare — or cut welfare more slowly — had many fewer abortions. The authors estimate that if every state increased spending on welfare by $1,350 per person living in poverty, there would be a 20% reduction of abortion.
* States that spend more generously on aid to women, infants and children (WIC) had lower abortion rates. They estimate that if states were to increase spending on WIC we could see up to a 37% lower abortion rate.
* During the welfare reform of the 1990s, some states instituted “family cap” policies that would not pay welfare benefits for children born to women already receiving welfare. States that did not have a family cap — and kept providing welfare even after new children were born — had about a 15% lower abortion rate than states with a family cap. The authors estimate that getting rid of the family caps would result in 150,000 fewer abortions.
* States that had higher male employment had a 29% lower abortion rate.
The authors noted that other surveys have indicated that women often cite economic factors for having an abortion. They concluded therefore that women who had more economic help — either from the government or a wage-earning spouse — felt less pressured to have abortions.
These findings, they conclude, indicate that “pro-family policies reduce abortions.”
What Doesn’t Work
They also found that many of the steps favored by pro-life groups and Republicans have not been effective at reducing the number of abortions. For instance, laws requiring parental consent for minors having abortions had no measurable affect on abortion rates, and laws against late-term abortion had a statistically insignificant impact.
But while several of these finding would seem to add force to arguments from progressive pro-life leaders — who have been pushing the Democrats to embrace an abortion reduction agenda — the report also reached at least one finding that cuts against Sen. Obama’s position. The authors concluded that Medicaid funding probably increased the abortion rate slightly. Sen. Obama and the Democratic platform support Medicaid funding of abortion.
The data will be combed over by pro-life and pro-choice activists, but if these numbers hold up to scrutiny it could, and should, give new energy to efforts to find a “third way” to reducing abortion that focuses on social spending programs rather than legal restrictions. It also will pose some interesting political dilemmas on both sides of the aisle.
If it turns out that looser welfare spending reduces abortion, what will be the reaction from conservative Republicans who oppose abortion AND welfare spending? If it turns out that Democrats could win conservative votes for increased social spending by casting it as “abortion reduction,” would pro-choice Democrats go along?
All in all, the authors said that if you added a number of these steps — increased welfare payments and less Medicaid funding for abortion — the abortion rate could be lowered by 37%. Now that’s a statistical extrapolation piled on a statistical extrapolation so don’t take that number too literally. Still, it’s worth pondering. There were an estimated 956,000 abortions in 2003. So, such policies might reduce the number of abortions by roughly 350,000 — even as abortion remained fully legal.
Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Online.
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