Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Making Abortion Illegal Reduces the Abortion Rate

We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. – George Orwell

When you make something illegal, you tend to get less of it. Partly this is because people are understandably less likely to engage in an activity if there is even a small chance it will lead to men with guns locking them inside a small room for an extended period of time. Partly this is because illegal activities, if they are to take place, must take place underground, which when the activity requires a willing buyer and seller, makes it harder for the necessary parties to find each other. One sees a lot more advertising for beer now than in the time of prohibition. There is also the effect criminality can have on social norms, and on people’s views of the behavior in question. All of these things combine to make the illegal activity more costly to engage in than it would be otherwise, and as the cost of something goes up, the incidence of it typically goes down. How much of a reduction accompanies criminalization will, of course, depend on a variety of factors, such as the level of enforcement and so on. And of course to say that criminalization reduces the likelihood of an activity is not the same as saying that it eliminates it altogether. Still, it would be passing strange if taking a illegalization did not have an effect on the rate at which the newly illegal activity occurred.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of people who, for whatever reason, want to exempt abortion from this line of reasoning. So, for example, Radical Catholic Mom cites data from the Guttmacher Institute purporting to show high abortion rates in countries where abortion is illegal.

Now the Guttmacher Institute is the research arm of Planned Parenthood. As such, it has both a financial and an ideological interest in finding that outlawing abortion doesn’t decrease the abortion rate. The risk of bias due to these interests is particularly high when you are trying to calculate the prevalence of an illegal activity, since reliable data on such activities is generally harder to come by (for obvious reasons), which leaves more room for creativity when it comes to crunching the numbers. For example, as William Robert Johnson notes:

Many [Guttmacher] estimates are based on limited surveys. Some such surveys are limited to urban areas, which are not representative of rural areas. Other studies use compound assumptions to develop a figure for illegal abortions from data on hospitalizations for miscarriages.

Even if we take the Guttmacher numbers at face value, however, the claim that criminalization does not effect the abortion rate does not bear scrutiny. Abortion in Ireland, for example, is illegal in most cases, whereas across the pond in England and Wales it is basically legal (though with more restrictions than in the U.S.). According to Guttmacher, the abortion rate for Ireland in 1996 was 5.9. For England and Wales, 15.6. That is, by Guttmacher’s own numbers, the abortion rate for England (where abortion is legal) is several times what it is in Ireland (where it is not). Presumably the lower Irish rate is not due to the country’s fanatical devotion to sex education and contraception.

The article Radical Catholic Mom cites doesn’t give the data for Poland (coincidentally enough), but examination of data from other sources produces a similar result. Despite having criminalized abortion (or, rather, because it has done so) the abortion rate in Poland is far lower than in other Eastern European countries (for a fuller examination of the effect of Poland’s anti-abortion statute on the abortion rate, see here).

How, then, does Guttmacher come up with the claim that abortion rates are no lower in countries where abortion is illegal than where it is legal? Simple. Abortion is disproportionately legal in the developed world and disproportionately illegal in the developing world. And, at least the way that Guttmacher calculates its statistics, the developing world tends to have much higher abortion rates generally. Once this is corrected for, and one is comparing developed countries where abortion is legal to developed countries where it is not and developing countries where it is legal to those where it is not, it becomes clear that criminalization has a significant effect on the abortion rate.

If one wants corroboration of this fact, one need only look to American history. As Stephen Levitt and Steven Dubner have noted:

In the first year after Roe v. Wade, some 750,000 women had abortions in the United States (representing one abortion for every four live births). By 1980, the number of abortions had reached 1.6 million (one for every 2.25 live births), where it leveled off.

To believe that legalization did not increase the number of abortions performed in the U.S., one would have to believe that both that there were around 850,000 illegal abortions in America every year prior to Roe (despite abortion being legal in several of the largest states). One would also have to believe that, upon legalization, the number of abortions in the U.S. suddenly and inexplicably fell by about half, only to return to its prior level over the next decade. The first assumption is merely implausible. The second is absurd.

December 1, 2008 - Posted by | Abortion, Statistics

10 Comments »

  1. This is a great article. I am currently involved in online debating about the abortion issue. People keep bringing up these studies and trying to make the claim that making abortion illegal will not really reduce abortion. i find this absurd for a number of common sense reasons, but I need some hard data to show them about the flawed reasoning used in these studies. This article helped.

    Comment by Racquel | January 12, 2009 | Reply

  2. you stated that you could correct for the comparison of developed vs. developing countries and their legal status, but you didn’t post that. the link you provided is a blog of someone who admitted they didn’t even read the report, but still ranted about it. please show your statistical correction.

    Comment by confused | January 30, 2009 | Reply

  3. [...] fairly compare abortion rates, we must look not at countries in Africa but countries in Europe. This article explains why it makes little sense to say that by making something that had been legal illegal, [...]

    Pingback by Abortion allows men to abuse women's sexuality - Page 2 | April 21, 2009 | Reply

  4. http://pricetheory.uchicago.edu/levitt/Papers/DonohueLevittTheImpactOfLegalized2001.pdf

    You forgot to mention the abortion / crime rate connection. Legalizing abortion lowered the rates of criminality among individuals exposed to legalized abortion by decreasing the births of unplanned babies. Unplanned babies are more likely to be born into an environment condusive to future criminality, i.e., unplanned babies are more likely to grow up and commit crimes than planned babies. Since legalizing abortion decreased the rate of unplanned births, legalizing abortion increased the abortion rate. QED.

    Also, you have to remember that from the pro-life perspective, the abortion rate = the percentage of pregnancies that end in abortion, not the number of women per 1000 per year who have abortions. This is how the WHO and the Guttmacher Institute measure the abortion rate.

    Comment by Austin Nedved | June 9, 2010 | Reply

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    Comment by five mistakes | December 11, 2011 | Reply

  6. Blackadder’s article is flawed for two principle reasons:

    1. You can find a country where it is illegal with a lower rate than a country where it is legal. But that is cherry-picking. If you aggregate a larger sample of illegal and legal countries, there is a very strong correlation: abortion rates are lower in countries where it is legal and where contraception and contraception education is readily available. However, there is an irreparable flaw in the data as described below.

    2. Blackadder’s attempt to cherry-pick also relies on rates of abortion that are just as suspect as the ones he criticizes, and for the same reason. Abortion rates in illegal countries cannot be accurately gathered. Since abortions there are illegal, physicians providing them do not keep nor report their statistics. So a real comparison is not actually possible in any scientific way. Blackadder had a good criticism against the Guttmacher data, but then he falls into the same pit by trying to make the opposite statement using even weaker data.

    3. Since you cannot get truly reliable abortion data from countries where it is illegal, we cannot compare with those countries. What you can do is compare rates of teen pregnancy, which are slightly more reliable, and within countries with legal abortions, you can compare with those. The trend? In states or countries that favor abstinence and limit contraception, teen pregnancies are much higher than states or countries where contraception and public education is readily available.

    Conclusion? Among countries and states that have legal abortion (the only group you can accurately sample) far more abortions are caused by lack of pubilc education and lack of readily available birth control. And what is most important, the teen pregnancy rate is lower in countries and states with readily available birth control and birth control education.

    Solutions? make birth control and birth control education widely available. We are driving more abortions every day by refraining from doing so, out of a misunderstanding of what is actually happening.

    If you don’t like abortion, promote birth control and birth control education now.

    Studies comparing abstinance education vs birth control education and readily available birth control have already demonstrated that abstinance education fails. Indeed, teen pregnancy rates are twice as high among those who “took the vow” than those who were given birth control education and who had birth control readily available.

    Sometimes we must give up a favored opinion when facts prove otherwise.

    But the good news is, you can cut the rate of abortions in half, and honor life, if you are willing to let the truth guide your actions, and put dogma aside.

    Comment by Spence Tepper | January 14, 2012 | Reply

  7. Hello there! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate!
    He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this post to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!

    Comment by damon braces | September 13, 2012 | Reply

  8. […] at Poland's abortion rates, before and after criminalization. From 1992 to 1993, we see a nearly 90% drop. Here we can […]

    Pingback by "But I only wanted ONE baby!" - Page 9 (politics) | July 8, 2013 | Reply

  9. […] at Poland's abortion rates, before and after criminalization. From 1992 to 1993, we see a nearly 90% drop. Here we can […]

    Pingback by Legislation stops abortion - the myth - Page 22 (politics) | July 8, 2013 | Reply

  10. Same objection applies. You cannot get accurate abortion rate figures when it is illegal. It is misleading to cite figures before and after criminalization. Doctors aren’t going to incriminate themselves. So once again, it is both invalid and inaccurate to compare abortion rates before or after criminalization. Criminalization just means folks won’t report. If you want to reduce honest reporting rates on anything, make it illegal.

    But you can get rates of teen pregnancies everywhere. And where there is no free, legal, acceptable Birth Control (including abortion) and no Family Planning and and no free public education, teen pregnancy rates are twice to four times as high compared to communities IN THE SAME NATIONS that have open, free and publicly accepted birth control. You can’t control abortions directly, unless you are the pregnant mother. You can force people to get illegal abortions, and kill both mother and baby. Now criminalization has caused the murder of both women and their children. But you can cut teen pregnancies down by 50 to 80% and save millions of lives just by making birth control and bc education widely available and acceptable. Want to save millions of babies lives? Promote birth control, support Planned Parenthood. Want to force girls to get abortions that will also kill them? Advocate abstainance only.

    It is hard to admit the facts when ones personal hatreds, bigotries and religious dogmas force them not to.

    Comment by Spence Tepper | January 25, 2014 | Reply


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