What if anti-abortion activists really wanted to reduce abortion rates?
Countries with more restrictions on abortion do not have lower rates of abortion
Birth control pills. Getty Images.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down the right to family privacy around abortion care has cleared the way for Ohio’s six-week ban on legal abortion.
Since about 1 in 3 women do not realize they are pregnant until six weeks or later, this bill effectively bans legal abortion care for a large number of pregnant women.
Ohio lawmakers are not stopping there, either. Boldly saying that pregnancies resulting from rape and incest should be required by the government to be carried to term, legislative leaders are pushing to ban legal abortion care in its entirety.
This approach may come off as extreme in the face of its tepid support among the general public. According to the Pew Research Center, more Ohioans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases than those who think that it should be illegal in all or most cases. One in four women will have an abortion in their lifetime and most do not believe the extreme ontological claims about moral standing pushed by legislative leaders.
A tragedy of legislative leaders’ efforts on abortion is how ineffective they will be at achieving their own goals. A 2017 cross-country analysis of abortion restrictions found that countries with more restrictions on the practice of abortion do not have lower rates of abortion. Believe it or not, interference with the private medical decisions of citizens is not only frowned upon in liberal democracies and beyond, it is also extremely difficult to do.
Perplexing is legislative leaders’ ignorance of the decline of abortion over the past few decades. According to both the Guttmacher Institute and the CDC, the number of abortions in the United States have declined from a peak of about a million and a half in 1990 to less than a million in 2020.
So what can legislative leaders do if they want to actually reduce abortion? There is one tool that has led to the reduction of abortion over the past decades that legislators could use that also do not infringe on personal medical decisions. That is improvement of access to contraceptives.
Washington University of St. Louis researchers found that providing access to no-cost contraceptives cuts abortion rates by 62% to 78% among those who receive the contraceptives. Researchers at the Guttmacher Institute have found reductions in abortions are driven particularly by increase of use of long-acting reversible contraceptives such as intrauterine devices (IUDs), which have high success rates in reducing pregnancies and give women the ability to control when they want to become pregnant.
A high-profile Colorado program providing long-acting reversal contraceptives to low-income women reduced teen births and abortions by 50% according to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment. In my graduate studies I worked with a team to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on a national version of this program, finding such a program would have benefits that would far outweigh its costs.
Abortion is not going away. Even families that plan well find themselves in tragic situations where a fetus is unviable or the mother will die. Police state intervention is unlikely to be tolerated by families or effective in reducing abortion rates. But anti-abortion activists can reduce abortions if they want to: by increasing access to contraceptives that give families control over their reproductive health.
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