Ross Douthat responded to the arguments made by me and by Katha Pollitt in response to his recent column on Europe and abortion policy. I was tempted to respond by just noting that he doesn’t respond to my two core points — 1. Bans on abortion in practice are just bans on safe abortions for poor women and 2. It’s not the fault of pro-choice liberals that anti-choice Republicans hate Medicaid — and dropping the mic. But I had a few more points to make, so I have a longer response up.
Since this comes up in comments virtually every time I post on the subject, I wanted to highlight this point about why pro-choicers note that many countries with bans on abortion also have high abortion rates:
To be clear, I have never suggested that restrictions on abortion don’t reduce abortion rates. There is certainly a good deal of variation in how much restrictions matter: In general, restrictions that involve persuading women not to get abortions (while, in my view, pointlessly humiliating) don’t have much effect, but laws that make abortions inaccessible by denying resources (like the Hyde Amendment) or by shutting down clinics (an increasingly common trend) have a noticeable impact. The argument typically made by pro-choicers is subtly but crucially different than the one described by Douthat. Pro-choicers (myself included) point out that a significant number of abortions are performed even when they’re formally banned, which can be seen not only in the pre-Roe United States but in Latin American countries where abortion is illegal in most circumstances—and abortion rates are still quite high. The fact that large numbers of abortions (some safe, some on the unregulated black market) will be performed under any legal regime is important for reasons I’ll return to shortly. But this does not mean that abortion bans and other abortion restrictions don’t reduce rates, all things being equal; Douthat is quite right that they do.
Another related point is that just looking at national abortion rights is not a useful measure of how restrictive a country’s abortion policies are. When I’ve tried to make the point that French abortion policy is not in fact more restrictive than abortion policy in most states, at least one commenter will try to rebut the point by bringing up France’s lower abortion rates. Raw abortion rates, however, aren’t in themselves useful when examining abortion access. There’s a missing denominator—what matters is not the overall abortion rate, but the number women who would obtain abortions but can’t get them. Legal restrictions on abortion, then, are just one variable—abortion rates might also be lower because increased use of contraception or generous parental benefits reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. This can be seen both in the countries that have higher abortion rates than the United States—where nobody can dispute the policies in these countries are more restrictive—as well as countries (such as Canada and the Netherlands) that have lower abortion rates than the U.S. as well as far more liberal abortion policies.