The Pro-Life Movement's Alignment Problem
Finding common ground with pro-choice groups could reduce the abortion rate substantially
How should a pro-life (in the abortion sense) person feel about the draft ruling overturning Roe vs Wade? I’ve seen a number of pro-life posts celebrating the fact that their “side” won, but very few of these really engage with the real question of what we can expect to happen as a result of this ruling.
There are lots of things to be afraid of — particularly the many, many people who are going to die if states like Missouri succeed in outlawing abortion even when the mother’s life is in danger.
But to my pro-life friends who believe deeply that the personhood of fetuses and the sheer number of abortions in the US each year outweigh any other concern, I want to spell out why I think you should still feel deeply ambivalent about this ruling. Over the next few years we can expect1:
an overall decrease in the total number of abortions — my best guess is a little smaller than the decrease caused by Obamacare. Publicly available statistics will overstate this decline, since the number of (hard-to-measure) illegal abortions will increase significantly, particularly as mail-order abortion pills become more available.
It takes time to get around abortion roadblocks, so people who are able to procure abortions will, on average, have them later. Since the vast majority of abortions occur in very early stages of pregnancy, it’s very possible that the number of abortions of (say) 18-week-old fetuses will actually increase as a result of this decision. If you, like many pro-life Americans, believe abortion starts to be wrong only once a fetus reaches a certain stage of development, it’s very unclear whether this ruling will cause more or fewer “not-super-early-stage” abortions.
There are several pathways by which this could lead to lower contraception access — some states are considering laws that would (inaccurately) include IUDs and “morning-after” pills as abortion, and it’s likely that other states might use the ruling’s reasoning to defund contraceptive access and comprehensive sex ed. If this happens and contraceptive use falls significantly, you can expect a massive increase in abortion rates, likely exceeding the decrease caused by the decision itself.
Isn’t it odd that the American pro-life movement’s crowning achievement is… not a particularly good way to achieve their goals? That this ruling’s effect on abortion is likely outweighed by decrease caused by the Affordable Care Act, a law the movement furiously rallied against? That a substantial part of the pro-life movement might see the number of abortions they care about increase as a result of their own movement?
Pro-life politicians tend to frame abortion politics as a zero-sum game: they are against abortion, while pro-choice politicians are for abortion. Since both sides have a large number of supporters who are unlikely to change their minds, we end up in a sort of “arms race” where both sides are pouring billions of dollars to push in precisely opposite directions and largely cancelling each other out.
But this isn’t quite true — I don’t know a single person who’s “for” abortion in the sense of “wanting as many abortions as possible to happen.” The pro-choice position is better summarized as “any person who wants an abortion should be able to obtain one.”
What’s important to note is that these two goals have some common ground. You can reduce the number of abortions and the number of people who want abortions but can’t obtain them by reducing the number of people who want abortions! And the impact you make this way will be multiplied, because both “sides” are pushing in the same direction, rather than cancelling each other out by pushing in opposite directions!
Is this possible in practice? It’s complicated and more research is needed, but some basic steps include expanding contraceptive access and comprehensive (not abstinence-only) sex-ed, both of which are scientifically proven to reduce the abortion rate more significantly than most “pro-life” policies. There’s also some evidence that fighting poverty and systemic racism will reduce the abortion rate, but on a somewhat longer time scale since these are both incredibly difficult to make progress on.
Why isn’t the pro-life movement doing this already? If there are pro-life bills that could garner widespread support even among the pro-choice community, why isn’t passing them as soon as possible the primary aim of the pro-life movement? (In fact, pro-life politicians seem to be unusually anti-contraception, anti-sex-ed, and pro-racism, which potentially explains why the abortion rate falls faster under Democratic presidents than Republican ones.) I suspect the answer lies in misaligned incentives.
The goal of many pro-life individuals I know is to protect fetuses, and they believe they can do this by supporting pro-life groups. But the goal of politicians is to win elections, and the goal of nonprofits is to raise money, and it seems like “sounding tough on abortion” is much more important to getting ahead than “actually reducing the abortion rate, even if it means finding common ground with pro-choice politicians”. Until the pro-life movement finds a way to change its leaders’ incentives, we’ll stay in the bad equilibrium where the pro-life movement praises decisions like this and objects to contraception access. And a primary result will be many more abortions.
I’ve updated my views on parts of the literature since I last wrote about the research on abortion. I hope to write a fuller literature review sometime when I have time. These facts are informed by my familiarity with this literature, and a paper I’m currently writing using data to effects of US abortion policy internationally.