Abortion Rates and Restrictions: Refuting the Monbiot Meme

by Peter D. Williams

One of the many false memes propagated by abortion lobby apologists in the last few years has been the idea that laws restricting or prohibiting abortion do not lead to reduced abortion rates, but only to increased numbers of unsafe abortions. A recent example of this tack was published in the Guardian in January this year, when the columnist George Monbiot wrote a piece alleging that banning or restricting abortion actually leads to greater numbers of abortions, and makes abortion unsafe. This argument, a rehash of a similar one made by American abortion lobbyists like William Saletan, relied on a survey in the Lancet that compared abortion rates across continents, and asserted that “The abortion rate was lower… where more women live under liberal abortion laws”.

The problem with this study, and with Monbiot’s citation of it, is that the study fails to properly back up his argument, as it does not compare like with like. Whilst many of the countries that have permissive abortion laws are in richer areas such as Europe or North America, countries that have greater protections for the right to life of unborn children are located in places like Latin America or Asia that have higher rates and incidences of the sorts of social problems that lead to a higher perceived need for abortion. Yet when we compare countries that are similar – that is, countries or parts of countries that are socially and economically similar and in the same region, we find a different picture is painted.

Let’s start with illegal abortions. Deaths due to this are recorded by the reported incidence of ‘maternal mortalities’. These figures are published annually by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and can be found here (go to ‘Annex 19. Trends in estimates of maternal mortality ratio (maternal deaths per 100,000 live births), by country, 1990–2015’, pp. 92-98). If we compare the relatively lower maternal mortality rate (MMR) of 30 deaths per 100,000 in Sri Lanka (which has profound restrictions on abortion), compared with the 258 deaths per 100,000 births in Nepal (which has a de facto permissive abortion system), we seem to see a fairer comparison of countries with different abortion laws.

We see a similar situation when we compare Guyana to Chile. Guyana significantly liberalised its laws in the mid-1990s precisely citing concern over maternal deaths, and has now a higher rate of 229 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. Chile meanwhile, has uncompromising protections for the unborn child in its constitution, and has one of the lowest rates of maternal mortality, having seen its MMR decline from 275 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1960 to 22 in 2015, possibly the largest reduction in any Latin country.

As for abortion rates, this is more difficult to ascertain from country to country by sheer definition: when abortion is illegal its incidence is harder to track as with any illegal activity. There is profound evidence, however, of the efficacy of right-to-life laws in reducing the incidence of abortion in jurisdictions that pass such legislation.

In the U.S., a 2014 study published in the State Politics & Policy Quarterly has showed that right-to-life protections at the state level have practically succeeded. The study was a meta-analysis of research based on data from the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention from nearly all 50 states for every year from 1985 to 2005. It found that public funding restrictions, parental involvement laws (which mandate that parents be notified when their child tries to access abortion, and require their consent), informed consent laws (which mandate women be informed in various ways about abortion prior to being allowed to go through with the procedure), and laws that limited abortion by other means, all reduced the incidence of abortion.

When public money for abortion was not available, abortion rates were reduced by 10-15%. Parental involvement laws led to a statistically significant decline ranging from 13%-42% in the abortion rate for under-18s, with most declines being between 15%-20%. Informed consent laws that specifically required women to have the chance to view colour photos of fetal development that reduced the abortion rate by 3%-7%, whilst those that required in-person counselling the day before the procedure saw a fall of 7-12%.

One study that the meta-analysis looked at found that a law in the state of Texas which requires all abortions at or after 16 weeks of gestation to be performed in either a hospital or premises designated as ‘ambulatory surgical centres’ led to a reduction in the abortion rate by an astonishing 88%.

Additionally, two studies looked at by the meta-analysis found that when abortion was prohibited its incidence fell, and conversely when legalised, its incidence rose. One of these studies analysed changes in abortion policy in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, and found that abortion restrictions reduced abortion rates by about 25%. The other study found that in 1971 and 1972, after the state of New York legalised abortion in 1970, abortion rates were significantly higher not only in that state but also in surrounding states.

This latter figure confirms what we know from our own experience in the UK. Since the Abortion Act 1967 passed, the abortion rate has gone up profoundly, compared to what it was estimated to have been in the 1960s (even if you use the higher rate historically estimated by the abortion lobby of 100,000 abortions prior to legalisation).

Simply put, the international evidence shows that whilst more permissive legislation is clearly associated with a rise in the abortion rate, stronger legal protections of unborn children can succeed in reducing abortion rates, either through restrictions or outright bans. Contra the flawed arguments of Monbiot, and other abortion lobby advocates, right-to-lifers can be confident in the effectiveness of right-to-life laws when campaigning for them.

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