Reducing the Abortion Rate

David Edelstein, reviewing Tony Kaye's abortion documentary, Lake of Fire:

I’m glad Nat Hentoff is in the movie. I remember the civil-liberties beacon from my days at the Village Voice, where he was shunned by most of the women on staff for his views on abortion. He’s a lefty atheist who also happens to believe that life begins when the sperm meets the egg—a view I find convincing. But the answer, as the movie’s pro-choice activists maintain, isn’t banning abortion but making birth control easier to obtain ...

Meanwhile, Will Saletan glosses the latest findings on this subject:

A study concludes that the global abortion rate is falling thanks to birth control. Data: 1) The rate fell 17 percent from 1995 to 2003. 2) The biggest drop was in the former Soviet bloc and "did coincide with substantial increases in contraceptive use in the region." 3) Previous studies found that "abortion incidence declines as contraceptive use increases." 4) Abortion bans don't correlate with low abortion rates. 5) Abortion bans do correlate with high rates of unsafe abortion. Authors' conclusion: If you want fewer abortions, don't ban them; provide more birth control and sex education. Liberal reaction: Bush is making things worse by censoring abortion counseling and pushing abstinence instead of condoms. Pro-life rebuttal: 1) The data are unreliable. 2) They're being spun by pro-choice "scientists." Human Nature's view: Reducing abortions through birth control is a no-brainer.

The difficulty isn't that the data are unreliable or the scientists dishonest; it's that - as Matt points out - these kind of cross-country comparisons don't actually tell you all that much about the landscape of abortion and contraception in the contemporary United States. We know that as poor countries get richer, better-educated, and so forth, contraception use goes up and abortion rates tend to go down; what we don't have is any evidence that increasing government funding for sex ed and birth control in a rich country like the United States, where contraception is already widely available, has an appreciable impact on the rate of unintended pregnancy, and thus abortion. Most of the evidence that I've seen suggests that it doesn't. Whereas we know that when abortion was legalized in America in the early 1970s, the abortion rate went up dramatically; we also know that Western Europe, which has lower abortion rates than the U.S., also has (somewhat) more restrictive abortion laws. Which suggests if you're serious about reducing the abortion rate in America (as opposed to taking the "more abortion is a good thing" line that Matt espouses), the Edelstein-Saletan answer is something of a cop-out; if some kind of restriction isn't on the table, you probably aren't going to get very far.