Defending the Indefensible

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Ross Douthat tries to defend ineffective and inequitable abortion criminalization policies:

Whereas we know that when abortion was legalized in America in the early 1970s, the abortion rate went up dramatically; we also know that Western Europe, which has lower abortion rates than the U.S., also has (somewhat) more restrictive abortion laws. Which suggests if you’re serious about reducing the abortion rate in America (as opposed to taking the “more abortion is a good thing” line that Matt espouses), the Edelstein-Saletan answer is something of a cop-out; if some kind of restriction isn’t on the table, you probably aren’t going to get very far.

A few obvious problems here:

  • First of all, the comparative analysis cuts both ways. Since Western Europe also for the most part lacks powerful movements dedicated to opposing rational sex education and access to contraception for unmarried people and also has a stronger safety net (making it easier for poor women to bear children), its lower abortion rates don’t answer the dispute here; they’re just as consistent with the thesis that these policies lower abortion rates more than criminalization. Douthat also ignores Latin America, which has pretty much the exact mix of policies favored by most American anti-choicers (abortion bans, reactionary sexual and gender mores, threadbare safety net) and also has sky-high abortion rates.
  • Douthat also makes the common error of conflating the quantity of formal restrictions on abortion with access to abortion. Since most European abortion restrictions are either similar to ones on the books in most American states or affect only the tiny fraction of late term abortions, the assumption that European women have less access to abortion than American women on the ground is highly problematic. Moreover, of the common non-ban regulations the most important is denying funding for poor women — which is available in most of Europe and not in most American states. And finally, Canada — which has almost entirely unregulated and state funded abortions — also has lower abortion rates than the United States; the same is true of the Netherlands, which effectively has state-funded abortion on demand (unless you consider showing a “state of distress” after 12 weeks is a difficult standard) for pre-viability abortions. This suggests again that the level of abortion regulation has fairly marginal effects on abortion rates.
  • Finally, Douthat entirely ignores the key implications of the study. How could the marginal-at-best reductions in abortion rates possibly justify the arbitrary enforcement, grossly inequitable effects, and the great harm caused to women that are all endemic to the legal regimes Douthat advocates? Like most anti-choicers, Douthat simply hides under the table when the question comes up.
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