“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” -Mark Twain
A common rejoinder that is leveled at pro-life advocates has to do with our insistence on legal protections for the unborn. It is often asserted that countries with tougher restrictions on legal abortion have either similar abortion rates to countries with more liberal policies on abortion, or even higher abortion rates than countries with more lax abortion laws. Because of this, all sorts of bizarre conclusions are made, usually without much critical thought applied. Supposedly pro-lifers are either too motivated by their own moral crusade to see clearly what will work best for the unborn, or, as our more uncharitable critics are fond of asserting, this is evidence that the pro-life movement is a massive conspiracy to control the sex lives of women.1
The argument has some rhetorical pull. After all, what pro-lifer wants to see an increase in the intentional killing of the smallest and weakest members of humanity?
The problem with this argument can be boiled down to a single-word question: Why? Before drawing conclusions from the claim that abortion restrictions don’t lower the overall abortion rate, it’s worth stopping to ask: Why is that?
The first lesson that any student of statistics learns is that correlation is not causation. Just because there is a connection between two statistical events, it doesn’t follow that one caused the other.
To illustrate, here’s a simple example: When ice cream sales increase, crime goes up. Now, does this mean we should conclude that sugary frozen treats make people violent? No. There is a simple reason actually. Ice cream sales increase in warmer weather, such as during the summer. What happens during summertime? Schools are out, which means more young people with free time on their hands; time that can lead to mischief. Young people tend to be the most crime-prone population, especially young males. In addition, people take vacations during the summertime. They travel more, and encounter more strangers in towns, neighborhoods, and states they are not familiar with, all of which can increase the chances of being victimized. Homes are left unguarded, which can increase the likelihood of burglarization.
What does this have to do with abortion rates? It’s simple: Other hidden factors aside from legality may be at play when it comes to determining the abortion rate. Cultural acceptance of abortion may be key here. Law enforcement may be looking the other way when it comes to an illegal abortion clinic operating within their jurisdiction. Prosecutors may be refusing to press charges against abortion doctors. Health agencies may be refusing to take a closer look at abortion facilities. And, there may even be better means of reporting the incidence of abortions in countries with greater restrictions than in countries with liberal laws. One can speculate endlessly, but simply pointing to a law that on its face seems to be ineffective is too hasty of a step to take.
Looking at the effectiveness of abortion laws is a secondary concern until a prior, more important question is first addressed: Should we enact legal protections for the unborn in the first place? If the unborn are fully members of the human family, then it makes perfect sense to protect them with the rule of law, just as steps were taken to protect racial minorities from discrimination, women from abusive spouses, and the elderly from being taken advantage of. In contrast, a society that allows for the killing of an entire group of human beings based on a characteristic they share is fundamentally unjust. A country that has taken steps to legally protect the unborn from being killed at will is far more just than the one that has enshrined the ability to intentionally kill the unborn as a fundamental legal right, even if the latter country has a lower average abortion rate than the former. Achieving justice on behalf of a group of targeted human beings is not an overnight process, but it is a necessary one.
How we, as a civil society, ethically and efficiently enforce the legal protections on behalf of the unborn is an important question, but it is irrelevant until the predicate question is answered: Is the unborn entitled to the same protections from harm as the born?
Murder rates, rates of sexual assault and sexual abuse, and other violent crimes fluctuate, and can increase, even in the face of laws prohibiting these behaviors. That fact alone, should not, in any way, lead us to conclude that laws against cold-blooded murder or rape should be abolished; rather, those laws need to be buttressed by better enforcement, better investigations, education, and intervention programs. In a similar manner, laws against abortion are a required first step on behalf of the unborn, one that will need to be redefined in the legal and cultural structures of society to further enhance their protection.
It’s worth asking critics of the pro-life position who raise this question, if a law were to be passed against abortion that reduced the abortion rate to near zero, would they support such a measure? It’s hard to imagine they would. So why even bring it up? The question of the unborn’s humanity is what ultimately matters, and it is the question that must be resolved as abortion laws are considered. So why not focus on that?
Lastly, while it’s certainly possible that abortion rates in countries with complete bans or strong restrictions still have high abortion rates, it’s far from reasonable. Keep in mind, if the statistic that 1 in 4 American women are having abortions is true, that means the vast majority of women of childbearing age are not aborting. It’s hard to imagine the trend will see a shift in more women seeking abortions when the number that does is already a minority group.
Finally, statistician Michael New points out, many of the studies that show a higher incidence of abortion in countries with more restrictions on abortion have a number of flaws that should lead to skepticism. Part of the reason is that, upon closer inspection, many of the studies that are often cited fail to take into account variables that can affect abortion rates, and end up comparing countries with variables that can differ greatly. Point being, the abortion rate trend of a country in the developing world, say, in Africa, probably won’t occur the same way in the United States. In contrast, other studies that have been conducted that held constant other variables such as economic and demographic patterns (e.g., the population of women of childbearing age) have found that abortion restrictions do in fact lower the abortion rate.2 Writes New,
“Furthermore, the results indicated that even modest abortion restrictions have an impact. Countries where abortion is legal only due to medical or social reasons have a 25 percent lower abortion rate than countries where abortion is available on request. This impressive dataset from a range of countries, many of which enacted policy changes regarding the legality of abortion in the late 1980s and early 1990s, clearly demonstrates that legal protections for the unborn save lives.”3
If the unborn are full members of the human family, then a truly just and civil society is within their right to enact laws to protect them from being intentionally killed. The relevant question isn’t what we think we know about how such laws impacted other countries. Nor can we be paralyzed by the concern that these laws won’t immediately translate into satisfactory statistics. There are two questions that far supersede all other considerations: What are the unborn, and how does a just society treat them?
1Apodaca, Nathan “Of Misogyny and Men: An Answer to Jill Filipovic”, Human Defense Initiative Aug 27, 2019
2New, Michael “How The Legal Status of Abortion Impacts Abortion Rates”, May 23, 2018