In recent years the pro-life position has made impressive gains in the court of public opinion. Because of this, a number of political liberals have come to the realization that support for legal abortion is a losing issue politically. As such, many have attempted a clever switch in strategy. Instead of trying to defend abortion rights, they have attempted to seize the moral high ground by claiming that 1) pro-life efforts have been ineffective and that 2) their preferred policy goals offer the best hope for reducing abortion rates. Indeed, over the past few years left-leaning groups have argued that a range of policies will reduce the abortion rate. These include more spending on welfare programs, greater access to contraceptives, and universal health care – in short, everything but providing greater legal protections for unborn children.

This argument occurs once again in a widely circulated essay entitled “How the Religious Right Promotes Abortion” by Northwestern University Law Professor Andrew Koppelman. Koppelman favorably cites Naomi Cahn and June Carbone’s book Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture. According to Koppelman, the hostility in red states to both contraception and comprehensive sex education leads to a greater incidence of abortion. Conversely, even though blue states are more tolerant of premarital sex, their support for comprehensive sex education and contraception actually lowers abortion rates. Koppelman spends much of the rest of the essay criticizing the religious right for their opposition to both sex education and government funding of contraception.

Unfortunately, Koppelman’s claims are based on rhetorical sleights of hand and a faulty analysis of data. What is unique about this essay is that all three of Koppelman’s arguments are incorrect. First, there is little evidence that more federal funding for contraceptives will reduce abortion rates. Second, there is some evidence that abstinence-only sex education is effective at reducing sexual activity among minors. Finally, red states actually have lower abortion rates, in part because they have placed more legal restrictions on abortion.

Funding for Contraception

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Throughout the essay Koppelman axiomatically states that more government funding for contraception will reduce the abortion rate. However, the only evidence he presents to support his claim is a faulty analysis of abortion trends. In his essay, Koppelman claims that Reagan-era cuts in contraceptive funding in the early 1980s resulted in increasing abortion rates during the rest of the decade. While it is true that abortion rates went up slightly during the 1980s, it should also be noted that abortion rates were rising much faster during the 1970s. In fact between 1974 and 1980, the number of abortions performed in the United States nearly doubled at a time when, according to Koppelman, the federal government was funding contraception at historically high levels.

Furthermore, existing research indicates that there is relatively little the government can do to increase contraceptive use among sexually active women. Nine years ago, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which was Planned Parenthood’s research arm and which strongly supports more funding for contraception, surveyed 10,000 women who had abortions. Among those who were not using contraception at the time they conceived, a very small percent cited cost or lack of availability as their reason for not using contraception. Specifically, only 12  percent said that they lacked access to contraceptives due to financial or other reasons.1 Given all the existing programs, it is by no means clear that more federal spending on contraceptives could increase contraceptive use among this subset of women.

Abstinence Programs

In his essay, Koppelman is quick to attack abstinence education programs. He argues that there is no evidence that such programs either increase the likelihood of abstinence until marriage or produce a decline in teen or non-marital births. However, this February a study which appeared in The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found evidence that abstinence programs were effective in reducing sexual activity among sixth and seventh graders.2

The study involved 662 African-American students from four public middle schools in a city in the Northeastern United States. Students were randomly assigned to one of the following: an eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on safe sex; an eight- or 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching them other ways to be healthy.

Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program had engaged in sexual activity, compared with about 52 percent who were taught only safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who learned about other ways to be healthy did. Notably, contrary to the concerns of Koppelman and other opponents of abstinence education, the abstinence program did not reduce the likelihood of condom use among those students who were sexually active.

Even the group “Advocates for Youth” which is usually very critical of abstinence programs, praised the study, calling it “quality research” and “good science.” While there have been other studies which have demonstrated the effectiveness of abstinence programs, this study garnered more attention because of its unique control mechanism and because it appeared in a very visible peer-reviewed journal.

Abortion Rates

Koppelman’s main argument is that policies pursued by religious conservatives are responsible for high abortion rates. Of course, he neglects to mention that many policies supported by social conservatives have been shown to be effective at reducing the incidence of abortion. For instance, a literature review that was published by the Guttmacher Institute during the summer of 2009 found that 20 of 24 academic studies found that state public funding restrictions lowered abortion rates.3 Even Guttmacher acknowledges the best research on this topic indicates that public funding bans reduce the incidence of abortion.

Furthermore, a number of peer-reviewed studies show that pro-life parental involvement laws reduce the incidence of abortion among minors. Two detailed case studies that focused respectively on parental involvement laws passed in Massachusetts4 and Texas5 found that the in-state decline in the number of abortions performed on minors clearly exceeded any out-of-state increases. Furthermore, both studies also found small, but statistically significant increases in the minor birth rate, indicating that some minors who would have otherwise had abortions, gave birth instead. Finally, there is also research which indicates that pro-life informed consent laws are effective.6 In particular, two case studies of Mississippi’s informed consent show that it reduced the minor abortion rate.7 One of these studies even demonstrates that the decline started in the month the informed consent legislation took effect.8

What about Koppelman’s arguments about culture, contraception, and sex education? Well, once again the data clearly show that Koppleman is incorrect. Data obtained from the Alan Guttmacher Institute shows that the 31 states that were won by George W. Bush in the 2004 election had an average abortion rate of about 12 abortions per thousand women of childbearing age. The 19 states that John Kerry won had an average abortion rate of over 20. The results were similar when data from the Centers for Disease Control was used.

Furthermore, the five states where John McCain received the highest percentage of votes in 2008 had an average abortion rate of 6.9. The five states where Barack Obama received the highest percentage of votes in 2008 had an average abortion rate of 22.6. Overall, it seems clear that politically conservative states have, on average, lower abortion rates, than their more liberal counterparts.


Andrew Koppelman is the latest in a long line of pro-choice commentators to try to make the case that the best strategy for lowering the abortion rate is not greater legal protection for unborn children, but rather, more funding for contraception and comprehensive sex education. Unfortunately, the available research and data do not support his arguments. There is no solid evidence that greater federal funding for contraceptives lowers abortion rates. Furthermore, contrary to the claims of Koppelman there exists evidence that well designed abstinence education programs are able to reduce teen sexual activity.

However, the best way to empirically test Koppelman’s claims is to simply analyze abortion data from the state level. If Koppelman’s claims are correct, then sexually permissive, contraceptive friendly blue states should have the lowest abortion rates. However, that is not the case. Data from both the Centers for Disease Control and the Alan Guttmacher clearly indicate that abortion rates are significantly lower in red states than in blue states. Furthermore, the states where Republican Presidential nominees receive the most support have far lower abortion rates than those states where Democratic Presidential nominees perform the best. Simply put, state level data offer no support for Koppelman’s argument.

Overall, it should come as no surprise to pro-lifers that sexual restraint and greater legal protection for the unborn has been and will continue to be the best strategy for lowering abortion rates. The pro-life movement would do well to stay the course.

[1] Jones, Rachel, Jacqueline Darroch, and Stanley K. Henshaw. 2002. “Contraceptive Use Among U.S. Women Having Abortions 2000-2001.” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 34(6): 294-303.

[2] Jemmott, John, Loretta S. Jemmott, and Geoffrey T. Fong. 2010. “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months: A Randomized Controlled Trial With Young Adolescents.” Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 164: 152-159.

[3] Henshaw Stanley K. et al. 2009. Restrictions on Medicaid Funding for Abortions: A Literature Review, New York: Guttmacher Institute.

[4] Cartoof, Virginia and Lorraine Klerman. 1986. “Parental Consent for Abortion: Impact of the Massachusetts Law.” American Journal of Public Health 76: 397-400.
[5] Joyce, Theodore, Robert Kaestner, and Silvie Coleman. 2006. “Changes in Abortions and Births and the Texas Parental Involvement Law.” The New England Journal of Medicine 354: 1031-1038.

[6] New, Michael J. 2004. “Analyzing the Effect of State Legislation on the Incidence of Abortion During the 1990s.” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report 04-01.

[7] Althaus F. and Stanley K. Henshaw. 1994. “The Effects of Mandatory Delay Laws on Abortion Patients and Providers.” Family Planning Perspectives 26(5):228–231 & 233.

[8] Joyce, Ted, Stanley K. Henshaw, and JD Skatrud. 1997. The Impact of Mississippi’s Mandatory Delay Law on Abortions and Births.” Journal of the American Medical Association 278(8): 653–658.