As Election Day approaches, the mainstream media is, as usual, showcasing self-identified ''pro-lifers'' who are supporting the Democratic Party's pro-abortion presidential nominee. In 2004, a number of media outlets cited an analysis by ethicist Glen Harold Stassen which claimed--wrongly--that the number of abortions had increased slightly since President Bush's inauguration in 2001. The New York Times published an op-ed by Dean Mark Roche of Notre Dame encouraging pro-life Catholics to vote for John Kerry. This year the story is similar. Former Reagan administration Assistant Attorney General Doug Kmiec and Duquesne University Law Professor Nicholas Cafardi, both of whom claim to be opponents of abortion, have received plenty of media attention for their support of Barack Obama.
Their arguments are the same ones put forward in 2004. They have not improved with age. Most of these authors attempt to make one of two points: either a) that there is little that elected officials can do to curb abortion through legislation, or b) that the pro-life movement has not reaped any real benefits from supporting candidates who oppose abortion. Voters should, therefore, they argue, place greater emphasis on other issues. However, an examination of the history of the pro-life movement and a careful analysis of abortion trends demonstrate that these arguments are deeply flawed. In fact, the success of pro-life political candidates has resulted in substantial reductions in the abortion rate.
For instance, the 1990s decline in the abortion rate--a decline that is eagerly touted by these Obama and Kerry supporters--had virtually nothing to do with policies enacted by President Clinton, and much to do with the dramatic increase in the number of states that were enacting pro-life laws. The information below comes from NARAL's Who Decides, an annual publication which provides information about abortion legislation:
- In 1992, virtually no states were enforcing informed-consent laws; by 2000, 27 states had informed-consent laws in effect.
- In 1992, no states had banned or restricted partial-birth abortion; by 2000, twelve states had bans or restrictions in effect.
- In 1992, only 20 states were enforcing parental-involvement statutes; by 2000, 32 states were enforcing these laws.
Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence which suggests that these and other types of pro-life legislation have been effective at reducing the incidence of abortion.
Public Funding Restrictions
There are a number of studies in peer reviewed academic journals that indicate that restrictions on public funding reduce abortion rates. In fact, there is close to a consensus on this subject among social scientists. I have conducted three studies which have examined state abortion data from almost every state for every year from 1985 to 1999. Each study finds that these state level public funding restrictions reduce the incidence of abortions by over 10 percent.
Informed Consent Laws
Informed consent laws require that women seeking abortions receive information about public and private sources of support for single mothers, health risks, and fetal development. Between 1992 and 2000, 27 states have enacted informed consent laws. Abortion data obtained from both the pro-abortion Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) and the officially neutral Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that informed consent laws reduce the incidence of abortion. Furthermore, natural experiments which compare the effects of nullified laws to enacted laws have shown that nullified laws have no real effect on state abortion rates whereas enacted laws result in fewer abortions. This provides more evidence for the effectiveness of informed consent laws.
Parental Involvement Laws
There exist at least 8 studies in peer reviewed academic journals--including one in The New England Journal of Medicine--which demonstrate that pro-life parental involvement laws reduce the in-state abortion rate for minors anywhere from 13 percent to 19 percent. Furthermore, a recent study I have conducted shows that more protective parental involvement laws--those that require parental consent and those that require the involvement of two parents--result in even larger decreases in abortion.
Case studies provide still more evidence of the effectiveness of state level pro-life legislation. Between 1992 and 2000 the overall abortion rate declined by 14 percent (among the 47 states reporting data both years). However, those states that were especially active in enacting pro-life legislation during the 1990s experienced even larger decreases in abortions.
Mississippi has probably been more active than any other state in enacting pro-life legislation. During the 1990s the legislature enacted an informed consent law, the most protective parental involvement law in the country (one which requires the consent of both parents), a partial birth abortion ban, and a sweeping conscience clause allowing any medical professional to opt out of participating in an abortion.
Abortion Rate Decline: 1992-2000: 52.07%
In the 1980s the Pennsylvania state legislature passed the Abortion Control Act, signed into law by the late Governor Robert P. Casey. It was one of the most comprehensive informed consent laws and included a parental consent law (It was the law the Supreme Court ruled on in its Casey vs. Planned Parenthood decision in 1992). This law took effect sometime after the Supreme Court's decision.
Abortion Rate Decline: 1992-2000: 23.50%
During the 1990s South Carolina passed a partial birth abortion ban, a parental consent law, an informed consent law, and an act regulating abortion clinics.
Abortion Rate Decline 1992-2000: 33.57%
During the 1990s Michigan enacted a partial birth abortion ban, an informed consent law, a parental consent law, a ban on public funding, and abortion clinic regulations.
Abortion rate decline 1992-2000: 21.39%
So what generated this increase in pro-life legislation? There are two primary factors and both directly result from the election of pro-life candidates. First, the Supreme Court nominees of Presidents Reagan and Bush (41) gave state level pro-life legislation greater deference in their Casey v. Planned Parenthood decision in 1992.
Many in the right-to-life movement were disappointed that the Supreme Court did not use Casey as an opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. However, in Casey the Supreme Court upheld as constitutionally permissible some of the policies contained in Pennsylvania's Abortion Control Act. As such, this decision afforded pro-life legislators at the state level more freedom to enact laws designed to protect the unborn.
Prior to Casey, the only laws that consistently withstood judicial scrutiny were parental-involvement laws and Medicaid-funding restrictions. After Casey, informed-consent laws were upheld. Informed-consent laws require women seeking abortions to receive information about fetal development, the health risks involved with obtaining an abortion, and public and private sources of support for single mothers. Furthermore, after Casey waiting periods and many state-level partial-birth-abortion bans were upheld as well.
Second, during the 1994 elections, Republicans won control of both chambers of the state legislature in eleven additional states. In many cases, Republicans maintained control over most of these legislatures through the end of the decade. Since Republicans at both the state and federal level tend to be more supportive of pro-life legislation, this made it easier for pro-lifers to enact protective legislation at the state level. Overall, there is no room for serious doubt that political victories by pro-life candidates have made a real difference.
In fairness, it should be noted that Kmiec, Cafardi, and others who are supporting Obama make one valid point. That is that the reversal of Roe vs. Wade will not be a panacea for the pro-life movement. Indeed, a reversal of Roe would simply give states the ability to restrict abortion. Not surprisingly, many states would not change their abortion policies at all if Roe were reversed.
However, the importance of reversing Roe vs. Wade should not be understated. The damage done by Roe vs. Wade went beyond the legalization of abortion in all 50 states. Roe gave the idea of ''abortion-rights'' mainstream political credibility and shifted sexual and cultural mores in such a way as to make the enactment of pro-life laws more difficult. As such, a reversal of Roe would still do considerable good for the pro-life movement. It would further stigmatize abortion and remove judicial barriers from the enactment of pro-life legislation. However, pro-lifers need to be reminded that overturning Roe is only the first step. Indeed, enacting pro-life laws and changing the culture are battles that will engage the right-to-life movement for years to come.
During the past 35 years, the pro-life movement has made some real progress--progress that pro-lifers could at times do a better job of advertising. During the 1990s more states enacted parental-involvement laws, waiting periods, and informed-consent laws. More importantly, the number of abortions has fallen in 12 out of the past 14 years and the total number of abortions has declined by 21 percent since 1990. These gains are largely due to pro-life political victories at the federal level in the 1980s and at the state level in the 1990s, both of which have made it easier to pass pro-life legislation. Furthermore, since the next President may have the opportunity to nominate as many as four justices to the Supreme Court, the right-to-life movement would be very well advised to stay the course in 2008.
Michael J. New is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Alabama and a Visiting Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey. He is a contributor to Public Discourse.