Abortion Bans Don’t Work
Abortion has been in the news recently because of bans on abortion instituted in the American states of Georgia* and Alabama that effectively ban all abortion, with penalties of lifetime imprisonment or even capital punishment potentially imposed on those who terminate pregnancies.
The irony of killing people to defend life is apparently lost on these legislators.
Abortion is always a hot topic. Partly, that’s because of irreconcilable differences between religious belief in the soul and the practical realities of women’s health. But it’s also because there are dozens of myths about the impact of abortions, with many people basing their arguments almost entirely on basic misconceptions.
Now, I’m not going to go into the morality or ethics of abortion. I’ve done that before, and I think I’ve been pretty clear. And fortunately, as certain right-wing commentators love to say, facts don’t care about your feelings.
So let’s talk facts.
The main idea of these abortion bans is that it is going to prevent abortions. If you look at some of the quotes from politicians supporting the bill, the basis is clear: these bans will stop people from getting abortions, which will inevitably cause more births and thus promote the cause of life.
Unfortunately for all of these anti-abortion politicians, that’s simply incorrect.
There is quite a bit of research looking at abortion bans, across the world, and one thing is pretty clear: they don’t work.
What does the research say about abortion bans? The first thing to remember is that abortion numbers have been falling for some years in most countries across the globe — yes, even in the US. When we look at the impacts of abortion bans, we first have to discount the effect of the global trend towards family planning that has reduced the number of abortions happening already.
One study looked at abortion restrictions across the United States between 2008 and 2011. They found that, although many states had implemented restrictions that curtailed the access of abortions significantly, there was no relationship between abortion rates and any particular restrictions.
Another piece of research looked at what happened in 23 US states after they passed laws restricting the access to abortion for a decade. Similarly, this study found that restrictive abortion laws didn’t do anything to abortion rates, which continued their slow but steady decline.
Overall, in the US, it looks like abortion restrictions don’t stop people from getting abortions. What about the rest of the world?
This is where it gets really interesting. At a country level, we see something counter-intuitive — countries that restrict or ban abortion completely tend to have higher abortion rates. In fact, countries like Brazil, where abortion is almost entirely illegal, abortion rates are often two or three times as high as in the US, going from 10–15 up to 30–40 abortions per 1,000 women.
At first glance, it seems like abortion bans have the opposite of the intended effect. What happens when we test that finding?
Luckily, thanks to the US, we’ve got a great test of abortion bans that shows just how ineffective they are.
Global Gag Rule
In 1984, and then in every new Republican presidency since then, the US government implemented what is often called the Global Gag Rule. What this does is ban US federal funding to any non-governmental organizations that perform, advise on, or endorse abortion in any way. Given that some developing nations rely on organizations like this for family planning services, what this effectively does is set up a natural experiment in how abortion bans affect abortion rates — some places shutter all abortion services while the policy is in effect while others don’t change their services much at all.
And when you compare countries that stop providing legal, safe abortion to countries that don’t, you find something strange — their abortion rates increase. It turns out that the best evidence indicates that banning abortion increases abortion rates.
Partially this is because the Global Gag Rule limits the ability of some people to access contraceptives, but it’s also because it’s not that hard to induce an abortion.
What’s hard is doing it SAFELY.
You can ban people from going to the doctor, but you can’t stop desperate women from drinking bleach, or pushing bicycle spokes into their vaginas. Given that unsafe abortions make up 45% of all abortion worldwide, it’s not difficult to see why the WHO calls it a “preventable pandemic”.
And one thing that is indisputable is that they increase the number of unsafe abortions. If you stop women from accessing safe and effective abortion care, it’s not at all surprising that they will go to the next best option, which unfortunately is a whole lot worse.
All of this brings us to the obvious question: how do you prevent abortions?
The answer is both simple and unsurprising: contraception.
Yes, it turns out that when you give people access to cheap and effective contraception, abortion rates drop. It makes perfect sense — if people aren’t getting pregnant in the first place, the need for abortions is massively reduced.
This isn’t a silver bullet — obviously, medical abortions are still necessary, and no contraceptive is 100% effective — but if you actually care about reducing the abortion rate, then contraception is the best way to do it.
Ultimately, abortion bans are a total waste of time. They don’t prevent abortions, they are morally repugnant, and they are medical nonsense. If you want to reduce the rate of abortion, providing cheap contraceptive access is a much more effective way to do it.
It’s a common myth that abortion bans prevent abortions.
The best evidence we have says that this simply isn’t true.
You can now listen to Gid on the Sensationalist Science podcast:
*Note: In a very technical sense, the Georgian abortion ban is only imposed on abortions after 6 weeks, but as any expert or person who menstruates can tell you, that’s almost never enough time to even know that you’re pregnant, never mind see a doctor and have an abortion.