The Abortion Post I Didn’t Plan to Write
Sometimes the inertia of public discourse is simply too hard to resist…
Ross Douthat asks, “What Reduces Abortion Rates?” Specifically, Douthat is tackling the claim that better access to contraception and legal abortion reduces abortion rates.
In Western Europe, where there’s a great deal of variation in terms of gestational limits and the mix of counseling and waiting periods required of women seeking abortions, the supposedly inevitable correlation between liberal abortion laws and lower abortion rates doesn’t necessarily show up. Yes, liberals can justly claim the permissive Netherlands, with some of the most lowest abortion rates on the continent, as a “safe, legal and rare” success story. But in general Catholic and Catholic-influenced countries like France, Italy, Spain and Germany tend to have somewhat more restrictions on abortion and somewhat lower abortion rates than, say, the Scandinavian nations and Great Britain.
To dig deeper into this issue in the United States it is important to look at the numbers with regards to abortion in more liberal areas of the country versus more conservative areas. In May of 2010 I covered this topic in the context of the “red families, blue families” meme. The popular conversation topic at that time was to point out the higher rates of teens giving births in red states as proof of failed conservative policies. Back then Douthat rightly pointed out that this disparity was mostly made possible through increased reliance on abortion in blue states, not a triumph of liberal policy.
And it really is striking, when you dig into the data, how much of the blue-state advantage in preventing teen births is made possible by abortion. Rhode Island’s teen pregnancy rate is identical to West Virginia’s, but West Virginia’s teen birth rate is 33 percent higher. California’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than Alabama’s, but California’s teen birth rate is 20 percent lower. Kentucky and Maryland have the same teen pregnancy rates, but Kentucky has almost 60 percent more teenage births.
I wanted to explore this phenomenon further so ran a bunch of numbers through Guttmacher and compared them to the way each state voted in the 2008 presidential election. Admittedly not a perfect survey but good enough for my purposes here. The first thing I looked at was the teen (15-19) pregnancy rate for all states. This confirmed Douthat’s comments. What I found was that the top 20 states for teen pregnancies are evenly divided, with ten states having voted for Obama and ten states having voted for McCain. The results look like this:
|State||Teen Pregnancy Rate, 2005||2008 Election Results|
What’s extremely interesting is the way the picture changes when you look at two other statistics. I pulled the numbers for the Percentage of Teen Pregnancies Ending in Births and the Percentage of Teen Pregnancies Ending in Abortions.
Here are the top 20 states for Teen Pregnancies Ending in Births and how they voted in 2008:
|State||Percentage of teen pregnancies ending in birth, 2005||2008 Election Results|
As you can see, red states dominate the list. In those states 66% or more of teen pregnancies end with a live birth. From this we can draw some broad conclusions about conservative attitudes towards abortions.
When we look at the top 20 states for Teen Pregnancies Ending in Abortions we see this:
|State||Percentage of teen pregnancies ending in abortion, 2005||2008 Election Results|
All twenty of the top states for teen abortions went for Obama in 2008. Again, we can draw the same kinds of generalized conclusions about liberal attitudes towards abortions.
The narrative from the Left for some time has been that the surest way to reduce teen pregnancies is to have more robust sex ed programs and better access to birth control and legal abortion. But we don’t see any evidence of this when we look at the numbers for blue states. Douthat mentions the regional issue in his recent post:
This is why I keep emphasizing the difference in abortion rates between conservative regions and liberal regions within the United States itself. (If Planned Parenthood were really the pro-life movement’s best friend, then one would expect Massachusetts to have a lower abortion rate than Mississippi, rather than the other way around.)
In 2010 I talked about ‘smoke and mirrors’ surrounding abortion policy. We’re seeing more of the same with the recent contraception debate. Better access to contraception and abortion simply do not reduce teen pregnancy rates and therefore do not reduce abortion rates. My intention here is not to discuss whether or not abortion should be legal. That argument can be waged elsewhere. What I am interested in is discussing the realities of how often it is used and what, if anything, we could actually do to reduce its occurrence in the context of current law.