What makes abortion rates decline?

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If you don't like the results of a study on some sociological topic of concern to you, it often seems like you can just wait a few months and a contradictory study will emerge.

That's what happened in the past four months on the perennially contentious issue of abortion. But both of the seemingly contradictory studies on abortion came from The Guttmacher Institute, a research group originally affiliated with Planned Parenthood.

Last October's study, a joint effort by the World Health Organization and the Guttmacher Institute, was published in the British medical journal The Lancet . It claims to show that abortion rates are about the same in all countries around the world no matter whether the procedure is legal or illegal.

Last week, a new Guttmacher study reported that U.S. abortion rates have fallen to their lowest level since 1974. So abortion rates are roughly the same everywhere, but in some countries they're falling dramatically. Huh?

News of the first study appeared in the Post-Gazette Nov. 4, 2007, in a Forum essay by Katha Pollitt, a paleo-feminist who writes for The Nation. One reader e-mailed me a copy and suggested I tape it to my mirror where I could see it each morning.

The philosophical message implicit in the reader's e-mail and explicit in the rhetoric of Ms. Pollitt and other pro-choicers -- that because some women have abortions, abortion should be legal -- would be sadly amoral no matter what the numbers say. But the study's main contention -- that abortion rates are roughly the same everywhere, regardless of a country's laws -- isn't really substantiated by its own results.

The first big problem with the Guttmacher/WHO study is that, despite Ms. Pollitt's claim of "cold hard data," the numbers from countries where abortion is illegal or restricted are only estimates, and American history demonstrates how unreliable these can be (more about that later). Ms. Pollitt and The Lancet accurately report the study's title, "Induced Abortion: Estimated Rates and Trends Worldwide," but references to it on the Guttmacher Web site curiously leave out the word "estimated."

The study also tracks trends only since 1995, thus beginning two full decades after an enormous cultural shift across much of the world. And the study's summary lumps all developed nations' abortion rates into a single number (in 2003, 26 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44). Ditto with all developing nations (29).

But the widely divergent figures from one area to another (12 in Western Europe, 21 in North America) render these lump sums meaningless. So does the fact that no one can say to what extent the availability of contraception or the acceptance of unwed motherhood reduces the abortion rate. (This inability to account for contributing factors makes it imperative for the reader to bring skepticism to bear on such "soft science" claims, no matter who the researchers are.)

The history of abortion rates in the United States, as most recently updated in the new Guttmacher study, underscores the potential unreliability of the earlier worldwide study. Pro-choice advocates often claim that before Roe v. Wade, more than 1 million illegal abortions were performed annually in the United States, resulting in 5,000 women's deaths each year.

Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now NARAL Pro-Choice America) who has since become a pro-life activist, says the claim of "5,000 to 10,000 deaths each year ... [was] totally false," an admission substantiated by the government's definitive Vital Statistics of the United States.

And to believe that there were 1 million or more abortions per year before Roe v. Wade was handed down in January 1973, when there were only 744,600 in 1973 following the Supreme Court's decision, you'd have to believe that the ruling sparked an enormous, immediate decline in abortion. That's absurd on its face.

Indeed, the abortion rate in the United States skyrocketed after Roe, hitting its peak of 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women in 1981, according to Guttmacher statistics.

It is clear that, contrary to the Guttmacher/WHO study's squishy estimates and ideologically driven claims, legalizing abortion can dramatically affect its numbers.

So can speaking out about its tragedy. The cultural upheaval of Roe also gave birth to the pro-life movement, which has undoubtedly played a big role in reversing, little by little, the cultural tide.

As thousands of people board buses Tuesday morning to head for the 35th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., they can go knowing that their work through the years has made an enormous impact for the good.

Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1733.


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