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The Effect of Abortion Criminalization

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In response to Matt here, let’s go back and see what I actually wrote about the new WHO study:

If the goal of abortion is to protect fetal life, criminalization is at best an ineffective and grossly inequitable means of achieving this goal, and the bundle of policies favoring reproductive freedom (including legal abortion) generally produces lower abortion rates than the illegal abortion-no rational sex ed-limited access to contraception-threadbare welfare state usually favored by the American forced pregnancy lobby.

It is, of course, true that the fact that countries that criminalize abortion have higher abortion rates doesn’t mean that the criminalization itself causes these high rates, and indeed it’s almost certainly true that ceteris paribus criminalization lowers abortion rates; I didn’t say otherwise. My points, however, are that 1)significant numbers of abortions will be performed under legal regime, since affluent women will almost always have access to safe abortions and some poor women will resort to unsafe illegal abortions, and 2)in practice, all things are almost never equal; abortion criminalization is almost always accompanied by other reactionary policies that swamp whatever inhibiting effects the bans have. What effect abortion criminalization would have in some hypothetical society with a strong commitment to women’s equality that happened to have a de facto commitment to fetal life that is rarely evident when push comes to shove even in societies that ban abortion is pretty much a pointless parlor game. If you want to consider marginal reductions in abortion rates that are reversed by the other policies that almost inevitably come with abortion bans in the real world and are obtained at the price of considerable negative externalities and arbitrary enforcement an “accomplishment,” I guess you can; I don’t.

On the normative point, as long time readers will know I don’t consider increasing abortion rates a moral problem and consider the sexual liberation that comes from legal abortion (and access to contraception) a feature, not a bug. (I do think that lower abortion rates that come from preventing unwanted pregnancies rather than restricting abortion access a good thing; I think that most women would prefer not to become pregnant in the first place than go through the expense and small risk of an abortion even if, like me, you consider pre-viability abortions morally neutral.) I don’t think this means, however, we should ignore the fact that “pro-life” policies are indefensible failures even if you accept “pro-life” premises. It strikes me that these arguments are a lot more likely to convince people who are ambivalent on the issue than making normative arguments about the a priori moral status of abortion.

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