I’ve been debating abortion a little on the comments of Post Tenebras Lux (from which I swiped the title of this post). I’m reposting some of my comments here. somewhat edited.
Xon wrote (in part):
How successful has the war on drugs been at lowering demand for pot? How successful was prohibition at lowering demand for alcohol?
Let’s introduce another concept from (very) basic economics into the discussion: elasticity of demand. I’d argue that for pregnant women who don’t want to be mothers, the demand for abortion is extremely inelastic. If I’m correct, then raising the price of abortions – for instance, by making abortions illegal – will have a relatively small impact on demand.
The problem with before-and-after Roe v Wade abortion rate comparisons is that too many people mix up the rate of legal and reported abortions – which obviously went up post-Roe - with the rate of abortions. But in fact, there were about a million abortions a year in the US in the few years before Roe - about the same as there were in the few years just after Roe.
What we need, to lower abortion, is a substitute for abortion. Attacking the supply side won’t do much to lower abortion rates, but attacking the demand side can work. For instance, policies which push birth control on teenagers (including the importance of always using two types at once) so hard the teens get bruised. Countries like Belgium have used this sort of policy to have the lowest abortion rates in the world. I don’t understand why pro-lifers have so little interest in imitating that.
Lux comment-writer Matt Weber responded:
Nothing. But you’re not understanding the concept of elasticity of demand. If something has an inelastic demand, that doesn’t mean that making it more expensive won’t have any effect on demand, just that the effect won’t be especially large.
Look, let’s say we ban drinking alcohol. That will lower demand for alcohol – but there will still be a huge demand remaining, and the black market will be substantial. That’s because demand for alcohol is pretty inelastic; you can raise the cost a lot, and people will still want it. People want alcohol very badly.
Compare that to banning RCA brand alarm clocks. Such a ban would probably be totally successful, because the demand for RCA alarms is very flexible; people will switch to Sony or Panisonic alarms and never notice the difference. Pretty much no one wants an RCA alarm badly.
Which would you guess the demand for abortion is more like – the demand for alcohol, or the demand for RCA alarms? I’d say the former. Women who want abortions often desparately want one; they’ll take on substantial trouble, risk and expense to get one.
Will you lower demand on the margins by banning abortion? Of course. But it won’t make a very big difference, because the demand for abortion is pretty inelastic.
The countries in the world with the lowest abortion rates are countries where abortion is legal – without exception. No country has ever succeeded in getting to a really low abortion rate by banning abortion.
Do you believe in the marketplace or not? If you do, then you have to admit that when the demand is high enough, the market mostly finds a way around barriers – and that includes legal barriers.
The only way to have a really low abortion rate is to lower demand, rather than banning supply. That means pushing birth control on teens as if it were oxygen, and also providing painfully generous welfare support for single mothers.
Will that have negative side effects? Maybe. But if pro-lifers are serious about lowering the abortion rate, they should be willing to consider the trade-offs. What good is an “idealogically correct” approach to lowering abortion rates, if it doesn’t actually work very well compared to other methods?
One method is to do a representative sample survey and ask women if they’ve had an abortion. This will lead to an underestimate of the true number of abortions, since people are strongly motivated to lie about having committed illegal acts (and even where it’s legal, many women prefer not to admit having had an abortion), but it’ll at least give you a baseline to work from.
Dammit, why must it always come down to evidence!
Although measuring something as hidden as illegal abortions is always difficult, the best pre-Roe scholarly assessment came to a figure of about a million abortions a year (“…prior to the adoption of more moderate abortion laws in 1967, there were 1 million abortions annually nationwide, of which 8000 were legal.” From Christopher Tietze, “Abortion on request: its consequences for population trends and public health,” Seminars in Psychiatry 1970;2:375-381, quoted in JAMA December 9, 1992).
Another option is to look at what happens to birth rates; a sudden, large increase in abortions should lead to a corresponding sudden decline in the birth rate. So if Roe caused a big jump in abortions in its first few years, we’d see it as a decline in the birthrate. So what actually happened after Roe was passed?
Year Births Birthrate 1973 3,136,965 14.9 1974 3,159,958 14.9 1975 3,144,198 14.8 1976 3,167,788 14.8 1977 3,326,632 15.4 1978 3,333,279 15.3 1979 3,494,398 15.9 1980 3,612,258 15.9
Similarly, what happened when Poland banned abortions in the 1990s? If pro-life policies reduce abortion significantly, there would have been a spike in Poland’s birthrate. But Poland’s birth rate remained steady. (See Reproductive Health Matters (Volume 10, Issue 19 , May 2002): “The restrictive abortion law in Poland has not increased the number of births.”)
There are three questions this brings up, in my view.
First of all, has the pro-life movement actually been proposing that we treat abortion as if it were murder?
I’d say not. The most recent federal partial-birth abortion ban, for example, said that mothers absolutely cannot be punished for their part in abortion; doctors could be punished by a fine.
Is there anyone in the world willing to endorse this policy for a murdered five year old child? A mother hires a hit man to kill her five-year-old child; if that happens, should we have a law saying that no matter what the mother cannot be punished, and the most that happens to the hit man is a fine?
The argument that pro-lifers can’t consider what is practical, because of their unshakable moral commitment to treating abortion as murder, falls apart when we look at the laws pro-lifers propose.
Second question: Is the “let’s do it both ways” plan viable, or are abortion reduction strategies a binary, one-or-the-other choice?
I’d say it’s one or the other. The U.S. has a two party system; no matter how nuanced our personal positions, the real choice we make is between column D and column R. One party supports policies that have actually led to low abortion rates in the real world, but opposes a ban. The other party opposes policies that have actually led to low abortion rates, but supports a ban. And that’s our choice.
And it’s a choice that matters in the real world. If the US had an abortion rate as low as Belgium’s, that would mean something between 700,000 and 800,000 fewer abortions a year, according to my seat-of-the-pants calculations.
Which brings me to my third question. In a system that forces us to choose between one or the other, which is better: 700,000 murders potentially prevented, or 700,000 murders not prevented plus an official statement calling abortion murder?
I don’t know what Xon’s position is. But the pro-life movement as a whole clearly favors the latter policy. And I find that incomprehensible. Putting abstract principle above 700,000 lives doesn’t seem like a supportable position, to me, and certainly undermines the pro-life claim to be motivated only by caring about what happens to babies.