Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Stephen Waldman on Abortion Reduction

I have argued several times on this blog that it is time for politicians on both sides of the abortion debate to get serious about abortion reduction. (You can find all of these posts collected here. Steve Waldman of Beliefnet has a very interesting essay that argues that a serious effort to reduce abortion would likely do more than efforts to overrule Roe v. Wade:

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?

. . .

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.



. . .

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."

. . .

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.



Read it all here (it is well worth reducing the whole essay--most notably for its discusion of the fact that Obama has not yet really endorced the abortion reduction agenda).

As I have said repeatedly before, for most candidates for office, the abortion debate (on both sides) has been more about constituencies and fundraising than a real issue about real lives. The result has been that political leaders are forced into two sharply divided camps with few politicians (Joe Biden being one exception, by the way) willing to be in the middle. What attracks me about the abortion reduction movement is that it offers true progress. Apparantly, Waldman agrees.

What do you think?

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