By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D. NRL Director of Education & Research
Editor’s note. A week ago today the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion think-tank, released an analysis of abortions for 2011. The major (and very encouraging) takeaway from “Abortion Incidence and Service Availability in the United States, 2011,” written by Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerman of the Guttmacher Institute, is that the number of abortions declined as did the abortion rate and abortion ratio. Today, Dr. O’Bannon continues his series, digging beneath the numbers to tell us what they really mean and what they may say for the future. You can read Parts One and Two.
In a nutshell, Guttmacher claims that the 13% drop in the national number of abortions, from 1.21 million in 2008 to 1.06 million in 2011 cannot be the result of pro-life legislation because the bulk of that legislation did not become law until 2011 or after, and because there were little measurable results in the states where the laws did pass during that period.
Below we will show how tunnel-visioned this analysis is and how it misses altogether the impact of pro-life educational initiatives beyond legislation.
Guttmacher makes much of the fact that abortions often went down as much in states that didn’t pass laws as those which did. They said that there were no obvious state-specific trends.
There were declines even in states that support abortion and, in some cases, greater than the decline in national abortion rates, in states that use state Medicaid funds to pay for abortions.
More to state differences than meets the eye
Guttmacher says that certain new state laws, which only made modest changes, or addressed a very small subset of abortion patients, would not be expected to have much impact and implies that they didn’t. For example, Missouri, North Dakota, and Utah added new information to their counseling requirements, and Utah, along with Arizona, Arkansas, and Nebraska passed laws affected only later abortions, which only constitute a small percentage of abortions.
This is more complex of a situation than Guttmacher lets on, however. Certain of these states did in fact see abortion rates falling faster than the national average. Utah’s and Arizona’s abortion rates dropped 18%. Missouri’s fell 21%. Nebraska beat the national average with a 14% drop. Arkansas and Nebraska both saw rates fall, 11% and 10% respectively, but one reason for this is that abortion rates in those states were already so low (both less than half the national rate) that large drops are difficult.
It is not always easy to tease apart the influence of every possible event or even every new law. For example, during this same time frame, Missouri also passed an ultrasound viewing law and a law requiring a counseling visit 24 hours before the abortion. Guttmacher suggests that this the additional time commitment may have been responsible for most of Missouri’s drop, but how is it certain that it was not the materials in the counseling or the new ultrasound law?
Guttmacher puts forward the example of Illinois as one of the states that saw a higher than the national average decline in abortion rates without passing any new “restrictions.” While it is true that Illinois did not pass any pro-life legislation during this time frame, this ignores what was in fact happening on the ground in Illinois at this time.
Illinois passed a parental notice law in 1995, but never put it into operation, tying it up in the courts for more than a decade. In 2009, however, an appeals court lifted a federal injunction, clearing the way for the laws implementation. While further appeals and hearings delayed that implementation until 2013, all the legal maneuvering put abortion back in the news precisely during the time covered by this report, generating some uncertainty as to when and whether the law would be upheld.
Oregon is another state which Guttmacher offers as an example of state which passed no abortion laws but which had an abortion rate which dropped further than the national average. It is not accurate, however, to say that the state did not pass any laws which drew attention to humanity of the unborn child. According to a Guttmacher publication, the state passed a law making the assault or murder of a woman known to be pregnant a crime.
Those two states above, Illinois and Oregon, are ones that Guttmacher offers as specific counterexamples to Missouri and Louisiana, where Guttmacher admits that regulations might have played a part.
Neighbors, Past Legislative History Matters
Of course each state has its own unique circumstances and characteristics, many of which can make it hard to measure its progress against another. In some states, for example, the nearest (or cheapest) clinic may be just across the border of a neighboring state. A law change – a new parental involvement law, an ultrasound law, a right to know law, etc. – in a woman’s state of residence would not necessarily greatly impact the women in that community.
On the other hand, a new law in the state where the clinic was located, or a clinic closure, would drive down abortion rates not only in that state but in the neighboring one, whether the woman’s state of residence passed any new laws of their own or not.
Consider the case of South Carolina. South Carolina is one of the states listed by Guttmacher as passing abortion laws but not being able to beat the national average decline in abortion rates (10% lower for South Carolina, 13% down nationally).
In 2008, South Carolina passed a law requiring women considering abortion to be offered an opportunity to view an ultrasound and in 2010 passed a measure providing for a 24 hour waiting period in which women were able to consider information offered in a counseling session on the development of their unborn child, the risks of the abortion procedure, and resources available for them if they chose to continue the pregnancy.
Two things are important to note here. First, that before 2008, South Carolina already had in place a parental consent law, clinic regulations, a right to know law and other pro-life measures. By 2008, the number of abortions (Guttmacher puts it at 7,300) was already about half of what it was at abortion’s peak in the state in 1988 (Guttmacher reported 14,160).
In other words, a large part of the law’s function had already been performed before these most recent laws were passed. Abortions have dropped in the U.S. as a whole, of course, but not by as much as they have in South Carolina..
Second, women in certain parts of the state could, as described above, simply cross the state line and get abortions. A clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina, where there was no waiting period or required counseling at the time, was just across the border, and another major abortion megaclinic which Planned Parenthood opened in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 2009, just a little over an hour from the South Carolina line.
North Carolina has since enacted such laws of its own, but it may take until the next report to see their impact.
There are other local factors that keep abortion rates higher in some states than others, independent of whatever laws they have in place (though often making the passage of such legislation less likely). For example, whether a state funds abortion or not, high concentrations of abortion clinics, heavy minority populations (who have higher abortions rates and are the subject of much industry marketing), entrenched abortion advocates on critical legislative committees or in state government offices, etc.
While there are a few states that stood pat or saw increases , the good news has been that this has been pretty much a drop seen across the board, in both states that did and those that did not pass legislation.
This does not mean, however, that state and federal legislation had no effect.
Past state and federal legislation bearing fruit
Guttmacher acts as if the only relevant legislation was that that passed between 2008 and 2011. But as noted above, pro-lifers have been passing protective legislation for decades AND abortions, abortion rates, and abortion ratios have been falling for decades. While the drop off over between 2008 and 2011was substantial, the decline has been going on for a number of years. The current results are, certainly in part, part of this longer trend.
Many states began passing parental involvement laws once the Supreme Court first allowed them in 1979. Right to Know and waiting periods were affirmed by the Court in Casey in 1992, prompting another flurry of legislation.
It did not all happen at once, as it often took years to get sympathetic legislators in office, on the right committees, someone in the governor’s office who would sign the bill, and work its way through the state (or federal courts).
Though only a handful passed such laws between 2008 and 2011, there were by that last year at least 29 states with substantive parental involvement laws and another 24 with effective right to know statutes.
What Guttmacher says about laws protecting unborn children scientifically proven to be capable of feeling pain–that they would be expected to have a narrow impact because most abortions are done in the first trimester–could also be said about laws prohibiting partial-birth abortion, passed at the federal level and signed by President George W. Bush in 2003 after years of debate and presidential vetoes under Bill Clinton, and finally upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007.
Guttmacher’s argument that these make little difference because few abortions are done at this stage ignores the considerable educational effect the debate over partial-birth abortions and the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts act and how this changes behaviors.
Legislation’s educational effect
Education’s impact is, by its very nature, difficult to measure in any direct fashion. But discussions that had, for years, only focused narrowly on “women’s rights” and “choice” suddenly were expanded to include the humanity and rights of the unborn child. When people were looking at the line drawings of a mostly-delivered baby being stabbed in the back of the skull and having his or her brains sucked out, the usual “clump of cells” and “blob of tissue” arguments no longer held sway.
This influenced far more than just the number of women undergoing this particularly gruesome form of abortion.
Films and photographs of the child in utero became popular. The proliferation of ultrasound, a novelty in Roe’s early years, became commonplace over the next decade or so, confirming the humanity of the unborn child to a wider public audience, making the pro-life case clearer and more powerful.
Pregnancy care centers offering practical help and assistance to women with unplanned pregnancies sprang up all over the country, helping make alternatives to abortion real and accessible.
A great deal of this happened before the period covered in this recent report, but much of it would have been new to women facing pregnancy for the first time. What a woman knew about her child and about her alternatives was quite different in 2009 than it was in 1979 or even 1989.
When one state considers passing a parental involvement, or right to know, or ultrasound law, or a pain-capable abortion ban, the debate itself affects not only the discussion of abortion in that state, but across the country.
While Guttmacher may largely ignore this effect, it is not one that the rest of the abortion lobby treats lightly. This is why they spend money, bring in the abortion lobby’s superstars, and bus in activists from all over the country whenever one state considers even the most basic commonsense legislation. Anyone remember Texas last year?
Protective pro-life legislation can and does change the trajectory of the decision-making, not only of those pregnant women at the time considering their future, but also raises the general level of public knowledge, altering decisions for years to come.
The proof for this is seen not just in a given state, but in the decline in abortion numbers, rates, and ratios seen in the nation as a whole.
There were 1.61 million abortions performed in 1990. In 2011, there were 1.06 million, more than half a million fewer. Abortion rates peaked at 29.3 abortions for every women of reproductive age in 1980. Now, Guttmacher reports a rate of 16.9.
Guttmacher said that there were 30.4 abortions out of every 100 pregnancies ending in live birth or abortion in 1983. In this latest report, it now puts that at 21.2 per 100, a tremendous drop.
All this shows quite clearly that pregnant women are now more likely to choose life for their unborn children than at any time before abortion was legalized in 1973. Whatever the changes in the universe of pregnant women from 2008 to 2011 is, clearly it a much more pro-life group at the end of this arc than it was at the beginning, and less likely to abort than any population of pregnant women since 1973.
Attitudes have changed. Actions have changed. More unborn children are living to see the day of their birth.
 These states are Wyoming, Montana, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Maryland. However most of these were states where there were already very few abortions and only a few more were able to alter the trajectory of the rate. Maryland was the exception, with one of the nation’s highest abortion rates and high, steady numbers of abortions.
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