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One of the persistent myths in the abortion debate is that the pro-life movement doesn’t actually do much to help save lives. You’ll sometimes hear this complaint from pro-lifers themselves who have cynically concluded that pro-life legislation and pro-life legislators don’t accomplish anything that matters to unborn babies. On the other side, pro-choice advocates will claim that the pro-life cause is all about controlling women and regulating sex and don’t do anything to reduce the number of abortions anyway. If there is one thing cynics on both sides can agree on it’s that pro-life policies don’t work.

Except, that’s not true.

In her widely read piece How I Lost Faith in the “Pro-Life” Movement, atheist blogger Libby Anne tells of her deconversion from an evangelical student leader intent on “saving unborn babies  from being murdered” to a devout pro-choice feminist passionate about abortion rights. As an evangelical pro-life Christian there is much I find unpersuasive and inaccurate about the post (okay, pretty much all of it). But I want to take a closer look at one claim in particular, the suggestion that pro-life legislation just doesn’t work.

Libby Anne says her beliefs were rocked when she read in the New York Times that “A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.” Libby Anne goes on to cite this summary statement from the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute:

Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, the abortion rate is 29 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and 32 per 1,000 in Latin America—regions in which abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds.

The inference to be drawn from such a summary is clear: if you put restrictions on abortion you don’t save any babies, you only put the lives of women at risk who will continue to get abortions, but now in unsafe conditions. The problem with this inference is threefold.

1) The image of “back alley butchers” with coat hangers providing crude abortions to needy woman is a myth. According to the Bureau of Vital Statistics 39 women died from illegal abortion in the United States in 1972 (one year before Roe made abortion a constitutional right). The reason for the small number is that 90% of illegal abortion were performed by licensed physicians. It’s simply not true that women in this country were facing primitive conditions for their illegal abortions or that they likely would pursue risky abortions were the practice to be made illegal again.

2) The Guttmacher summary falls flat because it compares apples to oranges. To see how Africa compares to Europe tells us very little because the medical conditions, legal systems, and economic prosperity are so different. There are too many variables in play to conclude anything about Africa’s abortion rate compared to the West.

Russ Douthat explains:

Instead of looking at otherwise-similar countries that have variations in abortion law, the study compares rich regions (like Western Europe and North America) to poorer regions (like Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa). This makes it extremely difficult to tell whether the trend toward lower abortion rates in Western democracies really reflects the success of “safe, legal and rare,” as Saletan would have it, or whether it’s mainly a consequence of the enormous gap in wealth and development that still separates the West from the rest. (Many social ills tend to diminish with economic growth, and many pro-lifers would agree that a general increase in prosperity and human flourishing can do as much to reduce the abortion rate as any law or custom.) America is not analogous to Chad or Vietnam, to put it mildly, and if what we care about is reducing the American abortion rate, surely it makes more sense to look at the consequences of abortion restrictions in developed countries that already have widespread contraceptive access, rather than just comparing the developed world to developing countries and leaving it at that.

3) If we want to see what pro-life policies do or don’t do, the best case study is to compare individual states within our own country. Even a cursory look at state-by-state abortion rates casts doubt on a number of dubious assertions. For starters, if the best access to contraception and the most lenient abortion laws made abortion less frequent, you’d expect to see the “bluest” states with the lowest abortion rates and the “redest” states with the highest rates. But of the ten states with the highest abortion rate (RI, CT, NV, FL, CA, MD, D.C., NJ, NY, DE) all went blue in 2008 and 2012. Of the ten states with the lowest abortion rates (WY, MS, KY, ID, MO, WV, UT, WI, SD, NE), only one went blue in 2008 and 2012 (WI). Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but it does call into question the “rare” part of the “safe, legal, and rare” slogan.

If pro-life policies were largely ineffective, the Guttmacher Institute would not write about the “troubling trend” that more states are becoming “hostile to abortion rights.” Indeed, the map included in the article shows that the states with more restrictive abortion laws tend to be those with lower abortion rates. Again, when dealing with statistics we must be careful not to assume causation just because we find correlation. If abortion rates are going down in the United States (which they are), it could be for many reasons. It’s hard to say “A happened, therefore B” when C, D, E, and F also come into play. But a recent study suggests anti-abortion laws have resulted in decreasing abortion rates.

Here is Michael J. New writing in the States Politics & Policies Quarterly:

The number of abortions that were performed consistently increased throughout the 1970s and the 1980s (Brener et al. 2002). However, between 1990 and 2005, the number of legal abortions declined by 22.22 percent (Gamble et al. 2008; Koonin, Smith, and Ramick 1993). A number of different reasons for this decline are possible. However, one factor that played a role was the increased amount of anti-abortion legislation that was passed at the state level.

Indeed, the Supreme Court’s decisions in both Webster and Casey and the electoral success of anti-abortion candidates at the state level resulted in a substantial increase in the number of restrictions on abortion. By 2005, more states had adopted parental involvement laws and informed consent requirements (NARAL 1992, 2005). A comprehensive series of regressions provides evidence that these laws are correlated with declines in in-state abortion rates and ratios.

Furthermore, a series of natural experiments provides even more evidence about the effects of these restrictions on abortion. States where judges nullified anti-abortion legislation were compared to states where anti-abortion legislation went into effect. The results indicate that enforced laws result in significantly larger in-state abortion declines than nullified laws. Other regression results indicated that various types of legislation had disparate and predictable effects on different subsets of the population. For instance, parental involvement laws have a large effect on the abortion rate for minors and virtually no effect on the abortion rate for adults. These results provide further evidence that anti-abortion legislation results in declines in the number of abortions that take place within the boundaries of a given state.

The pro-life movement isn’t perfect, pro-life politicians even less so. But good can be done and has been done. Pro-life legislation reduces the number of abortions and saves lives. Cynics on both sides should take note.

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36 thoughts on “Do Pro-Life Policies Even Matter?”

  1. Flyaway says:

    How do we pray for evangelicals who think disarming America of nukes, feeding the poor, and other social justice issues are more important than preventing unborn babies being ripped limb from limb in the womb and more important than the deception of homosexuality being forced on society?

    Romans 1:18-27
    Unbelief and Its Consequences
    18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. 25 For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 26 For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions ; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural , 27 and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

  2. george says:

    @ Flyaway – I agree up to a point BUT yoour Roamns quote continues with a long list of other examples of the consequences of the Great Exchange of the Truth of God for a lie – many of which characterise the level of ‘debate’ in the United States.

  3. Michael B. says:

    People who aren’t pro-life will sometimes say that the gov’t can’t stop abortion, but this is false. If abortion is made illegal, this will force anyone wanting an abortion to either have the baby, or else go to a back-alley clinic where conditions are dangerous. Having to go to an unlicensed and unregulated clinic will definitely increase the risk of having an abortion, and thus discourage women from doing so and compel to continue the pregnancy. In addition, abortion laws can also criminally charge women who have them as murderers and send them to jail, which will further limit abortion. After all, if the fetus is really a baby, is a woman who has an abortion not a baby-killer and deserving of prison? So yeah, if we tell a woman who wants an abortion that she will have to face unlicensed clinics and possible jail time if she wants one, that will definitely make her think twice.

  4. stephen says:

    But what about changing hearts? If a woman isn’t allowed to have an abortion, will God somehow be glorified? Will she suddenly see the error in her ways and proclaim Christ as king? Will that baby now grow up in a Christ-centered environment? It’s doubtful.

    Sure, legislation makes a difference. But only in actions, not in hearts.

    My frustration with the single-issue-anti-abortion-voting movement is that it seems to make Christians think that we can relegate our responsibility to the state. I’ve seen a lot of people blogging about voting anti-abortion (I don’t see the Republican party as pro-life, but that’s a story for another day). But what I haven’t seen is anyone encouraging people to get involved with their local faith-based crisis pregnancy center, which most communities have at least one of. Let’s get Christians funding the crap out of those places, donating a ton of time and money to make them a known alternative to planned parenthood in our communities.

    Those are the places changing hearts.

    My wife used to volunteer at one in the last place we lived. They were underfunded and understaffed. But they offered free ultrasounds. About 78% of young women who came in considering abortion immediately changed their minds when they saw their baby. And, they heard the Gospel!!

    Legislation has it’s place, but I’d really love to see some pastors/bloggers encouraging their readers to put their money where their values are and get their hands dirty!

  5. yankeegospelgirl says:

    Every woman is different. Some women, deep down, don’t want the abortion. Others are gleeful about it. These latter women should probably face jail time.

    Think about how silly this sounds:

    If a rapist is imprisoned for molesting a child, will God somehow be glorified? Will he suddenly see the error in his ways and proclaim Christ as King? Sure, legislation makes a difference. But only in actions, not in hearts.

  6. Damian says:

    I agree with you on the inability of legislation to change people’s hearts and bring salvation. If a country had completely righteous laws, and the citizens obey completely to these laws, yet didn’t exalt God, He is not pleased with them. They are still natural people. However, believers should not turn a blind eye to institutional atrocities. Should slavery been allowed to continue because the legislation wouldn’t change the heart of former slaveholders or slaves? We should still have a desire for justice.

    I wholeheartedly support crisis pregnancy centers like what you mentioned. They are making a real difference, and if abortion were illegal again, they would see much more people.

  7. Keith says:

    “But what about changing hearts? If a woman isn’t allowed to have an abortion, will God somehow be glorified? Will she suddenly see the error in her ways and proclaim Christ as king? Will that baby now grow up in a Christ-centered environment? It’s doubtful.”

    Is there a civil law that does any of that? That is not its purpose.
    Even if no hearts are changed, some actions need to be changed regardless.

  8. stephen says:

    I don’t think that sounds silly. It’s true. God isn’t glorified by people being punished in the American legal system. That’s why prison ministries exist. The victim and victimizer BOTH need Jesus. That’s the only hope for anyone.

    I’m not suggesting we turn a blind eye, but that the problem exists outside of the halls of legislature and outside of election cycles. I would love to see it illegal, but in the mean time, we need to live within the system that exists and do what we can to save the lives that we can. I think that’s ignored by too many Christians.

  9. James M. says:

    On a practical level it must be recognized that some people actually obey laws as enacted. While those women intent on obtaining abortions will likely find a way, there are others who, having doubts already, will not go to those lengths. As a result, the actual number of abortions will likely decrease, even if marginally. And that’s a good thing. But laws are not enacted merely to achieve a specific desired outcome; they are rooted in an ethic, and they bespeak to that ethic. As such, a law’s existence reveals something of the values a people possess. I have long argued that whether or not one child is saved via legislation in the short run, it would still be incumbent on us to prohibit abortion. It is a black spot on this generation to pass on to progeny the notion that it is somehow consistent with justice to kill our unborn. If laws truly reflect the values we possess, then what instruction do we want to leave with future generations?

    And to Stephen, I’m with you, but for many of us this is a both/and not an either/or.

  10. Dan says:

    Lies and statistics as usual.

    For all of the effort to do social research and gather statistics, the greatest twisting and misinformation takes place after the stats are gathered. Kevin’s point number 3 points us back toward more meaningful stats. Truly objective people will implicitly know when other possibly meaningful figures have not been considered.

  11. Redeemed6 says:

    I once heard Pastor John Piper sum up this issue best,
    “Jesus did not come to end abortion. Jesus came to save the abortionist.”

    Not only do we need laws to help protect but we need to collectively pray for the Holy Spirit to sweep across this nation with a mission of salvation!

  12. Wesley says:

    Troubling as well is this Libby Anne’s ‘Oprah-esque’ conversion. to think that reading a study could so cause you to abandon all that you’ve once believed the bible teaches shows – to a large degree – how committed you were to that biblical stance. The bible is our final authority and must be submitted to, even when ‘really convincing studies’ say otherwise.

  13. Stephen says:

    I agree. But does that invalidate anything else I said? Isn’t a primary part of our job as Christians to spread the gospel? Aren’t these women ones who really, really need the gospel? All I’m asking is, why isn’t that part of the conversation?

    @James M
    I Agree with you.

    I’m not suggesting that Christians should abandon the legislative route, I do think it’s both legal and personal. My critique is that I think the latter is being ignored. I find that disturbing.

  14. ChrisB says:

    There’s a new one out now:

    This study claims the children who weren’t aborted are more likely to end up in poverty and abuse. Apparently the women studied who couldn’t get abortions rarely gave the baby up for adoption. Of course, the child wasn’t dismembered, so there’s that …

  15. Ian says:

    Getting from where we are now to abortion being outlawed is a long path. The simple fact is, no government will ever make it happen overnight, or even within their 4 year term. Right now Pro-lifers (that’s me too) need to be putting their efforts into lowering the level of abortion not futile attempts to outlaw it. This is where single issue voters get it wrong. Where one candidate may be pro-choice and another pro-life, who’s policies would make it easiest for a woman with a crisis pregnancy to continue the pregnancy? (and by the way, that is a genuine not rhetorical question)

    Pro-choicers are guilty of not seeing the real human being in the womb, but sometimes pro-lifers are guilty of not seeing the real human being outside of the womb. A real human being who will need caring for, educating, health care etc… How is the country going to provide that for the million or so additional births each year? What impact is it going to have on society? (read
    The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime (2001) STEVEN D. LEVITT for a harrowing view on that).

    I’m not for a minute arguing that abortion should continue, I’m saying that it will continue unless leaders can help guide us to a place where stopping it is actually feasible. Pro-lifers can help society get to that place by being genuinely pro-life, not anti-abortion. Getting involved in pregnancy crisis centres (as Stephen has said) is a great way of doing this, as is adopting, or finding ways to support those who adopt.

  16. I appreciate your comments. My concern is that anti-abortion argument is being measured by statistics rather than a theological position. For me, anti-abortion is a reflection of my personal theology of humanity, my anthropology if you will, what does it mean to be human. If we move from the classic position that conception is the point which we become fully human we miss the point. When we rationalize life as only being valid when it is viable, animated or self-sustainable we take the issue into the realm of reason and not faith or ethics; then we then define life not God. It is a classic, historical, biblical/theological position that God formed us and knew us in our mother’s womb; if we re-interpret that in a more non-literal way, we no longer acknowledge the Bible’s authority, or at least its influence into the conversation.

    If we begin to define what life is, what it means to be viable, animated or self-sustainable; then all other human issues come into play, like the severely handicapped, comatose or mentally challenged; are they not human according to that definition? Will we then ultimately see the rise of mercy killings, or begin to decide for people who lives, who dies?

    History has not been kind to us in this area. Black Slaves were considered 3/4 human, Jews during the holocaust were marginalized and considered sub-human, more parasite than human, a blight on true humanity and worth extinction before they infected and destroyed the human race. As horrible as this is, we are almost there, deciding that the choice, for virtue of personal, financial or health reasons are cause for extinction. Will we then decide on those same ideas that handicapped, mentally challenged or even aged citizens fall into the same category?

    I get what you were doing and as a right to life advocate I appreciate it. However, this girl, Libby Anne, needs a theology lesson; it was never about the numbers, it is about life; we need to be pro-life not anti-abortion, Pro-lifers do not advocate on the basis of the good it yields, rather the God they are accountable to, it is to him alone and in honor of his creation that we owe allegiance. We make a stand for the victims who have no voice, who cannot speak for themselves, who have have had their choice taken from them for the sake of someone else’s choice.

  17. RogerH says:

    Marc Barnes has had a pretty thorough look at Libby Anne’s arguments over at his Bad Catholic blog:

    It’s 3 parts, worth the time, and instructive in the comments as well.

  18. Megan says:

    “Of the ten states with the lowest abortion rates (WY, MS, KY, ID, MO, WV, UT, WI, SD, NE), only one went blue in 2008 and 2012 (WI).”

    Is there any correlation for how many single women in their reproductive years live in these states? Most single women I know are looking for job availability as well as social and night life. They’d choose Denver, Colorado (the bluest part of a swing state) over Laramie, Wyoming or Sturgis, South Dakota. Fewer women = fewer abortions.

  19. ChrisB says:

    @Ian, I’m happy to do whatever will reduce the number of abortions. But what will actually accomplish that?

    We spent over a trillion dollars on the Great Society without reducing poverty one bit. It made people feel good, but it was useless. Welfare reform coupled with an expanding economy raised people out of poverty.

    But what really causes abortion? Is it poverty (the inablity to afford a baby)or selfishness (the unwillingness to have a baby up-end your life)?

  20. ian says:

    @ChrisB What will accomplish a reduction in abortion? If I had a really solid answer to that question, I probably wouldn’t be sat here discussing it online! However, that is exactly the question we need to be finding an answer to, because it is the key to the question of how we can stop abortions altogether. Selfishness is a huge cause of abortions, but so is poverty. Poverty is an issue that governments have more power to alleviate.

  21. Cranios says:

    I would think that the low abortion states have low abortion rates for the same reason they have more-restrictive abortion laws: Because there are more Christians in those states, and therefore a better understanding of the sanctity of life. This article confuses cause and effect, I think.
    We need to preach the Gospel and let it change people into non-aborters. Then it won’t matter nearly as much what the law is; lives will be saved and also, the law will stand a better chance of being pro-life.

  22. Karsten says:

    There is this quote:
    “The rate is 12 per 1,000 in Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds.”

    The problem is, that official European abortion statistics are unreliable, since registration of abortions is often circumvented or “forgotten” (I know this about the German statistics but other countries might be similar). Abortions performed by use of certain pills will probably also not count as abortion in the statistics.
    Also, the eastern European countries (former communist bloc) have very high abortion rates, which tells us, imho, that government policies and certain societal trends have implications on the practical behaviour of people.

    Anti-abortion laws will not change hearts but may do practical good for the community, from which other good may come afterwards..

  23. at the risk of just sheer cynicism (call me out if I’m just being cynical, but this truly bothers me…)
    If Republicans were truly “on fire” about Pro-LIfe…and Doing away altogether with abortion…why in all these administration where Reagan, Bush 1 and Bush 2 were President and the Senate/House also had a republican majority wasn’t the issue of Abortion brought to the top of the list as it is during an election?

  24. Cranios says:

    Paul C: Exactly – and why did they all appoint pro-choice SC judges?
    The GOP uses this issue to buy votes – and then does nothing – and now it is actually costing them votes and they will drop pro-life altogether.

  25. James M. says:

    Paul, I feel the same frustrations when it comes to Republican priorities, though practical impediments exist by virtue of the way political agendas are set; compromises are made. Having said that, I think it a bit unfair to Reagan to lump him into a group detached from the issue. He wrote a wonderful little treatise entitled “Abortion and the Conscience of the Nation”, an admirable work in any case, but especially appreciated since he published it as a sitting president. He was writing on an issue that was surely considered passe and unimportant by the powers that be. I might suggest it as a way to charge the batteries…

  26. Thanks James, I agree…He was probably the flag-bearer in office for the issue and the movement was blessed because of his efforts I’m sure.

    I wonder aloud though…if Democrats also wanted lower taxes for the wealthy…would Republicans donors and supporters (meaning the ones with the money) still care about Pro-Life at all…?

  27. James M. says:

    Agreed that while folks on both sides of the aisle need persuasion on the life issue, it is especially disappointing that the one that makes this a plank of its agenda seems to equivocate often. Point taken.

  28. Cranios says:

    Conclusion: Pro-life policies don’t matter. Regeneration of peoples’ hearts via the Holy Spirit, does matter.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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