Pro-Life Policy: Does It Make a Difference?

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Pro-Life Policy: Does It Make a Difference?

October 27, 2004 4 min read
Andrew Grossman
Visiting Fellow

Did the policies of the Clinton Administration cause a decrease in the abortion rate nationwide during the 1990s?


The decline in abortion rates during the 1990s has lead some to suggest that electing "pro-life" politicians does little to advance the cause of lowering the incidence of abortion. They posit that the link between abortion rates and economic growth and social policy overshadows the effect, if any, of pro-life policies and further argue that "pro-choice" candidates tend to support economic and social policies that would make abortions more rare. In other words, they contend that pro-life voters may be best served by voting for pro-choice candidates. But a recent analysis by political scientist Michael New for the Heritage Foundation casts doubt on these claims, suggesting that pro-life legislation, passed in the states, led to the drop in abortion rates in the 1990s. No surprise, pro-life politicians were behind these laws.


In one widely circulated editorial, Glen Stassen of the Fuller Theological Seminary describes his "disturbing" findings from studying abortion rates during the Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.[1] Stassen describes, accurately, the 17.4 percent drop in the number of abortions nationwide between 1990 and 1999. This number is based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data that, in turn, rely on state reports.[2]


The CDC and the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) are the most widely used sources for academic research on abortion rates. Neither has reported data beyond 2000.[3] Stassen, therefore, uses data from individual state health departments to extrapolate the change in the national abortion rate. Sixteen states reported data through 2002; three of these states also have data available for 2003. Of these sixteen, eleven report increases in their abortion rates through 2002, while five report decreases. Using this data, he concludes, "probably 52,000 more abortions occurred in the United States in 2002 than expected from the earlier trends" of the 1990s. (Note: Stassen has already admitted he miscalculated data for two states, South Dakota and Wisconsin.[4] This difference, of about 1,000 total, brings both states into the 'reduced rate' camp, in the case of South Dakota reversing a 2.1 percent abortion rate increase under Stassen's previous calculations. The actual change from 2001 to 2002 was a 9.7 percent decrease.)


While this methodology raises questions about the accuracy of his conclusions, a more serious flaw in Stassen's reasoning is evident in light of a January 2004 Heritage Foundation report by Michael New: Stassen simply ignores state-level policies.[5] Stassen implies that the decline in the abortion rate during the Clinton administration can be attributed to the Clinton administration's social policies-despite its pro-choice stance. As New explains, in 1992, virtually no states enforced informed-consent laws, none banned or restricted partial-birth abortions, and only 20 states enforced parental involvement laws. By 2000, however, all those numbers jumped: 27 states had informed-consent laws in effect; 12 states had partial-birth abortion bans or restrictions; 32 states were enforcing parental-involvement laws.


These pro-life laws implemented at the state level accounted for a significant amount of the variation in the states' abortion rates in the 1990s. For example, state laws restricting the use of Medicaid funds in paying for abortion reduced the abortion ratio by 29.66 abortions per thousand women ages 15-44. Informed consent laws in the states also pushed down abortion rates. State-level policies such as these caused real declines in abortion rates over the 1990s.  Stassen's analysis, however, does not consider the timing of the passage and repeal of such legislation.


And who was responsible for passing these successful state-level policies as legislation? It was not the pro-choice administration of President Clinton, but instead a large crop of pro-life state legislators. From the 1994 elections and on, pro-life candidates enjoyed great political success. And this made it easier to pass pro-life laws that have been effective in driving abortion rates down.


In other words, lowering the incidence of abortion may be more straightforward than Stassen makes it seem. Stassen argues voting for pro-life candidates may not help the pro-life cause. But a wealth of empirical data supports the view that traditional pro-life policies, such as informed-consent laws, Medicaid funding restrictions, and parental-notice or -consent laws, have all been shown to reduce abortion rates. And, crucial in response to Stassen's contention, these policies were passed following increases in the numbers of state pro-life politicians. This is the real lesson of the Clinton-era decrease in abortion rates.

Andrew Grossman is Senior Writer and Editor at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] Glen Harold Stassen, " Pro-Life? Look at the fruits," The Courier-Journal, Monday, October 11, 2004.

[2] The most recent CDC report is available at "Abortion Surveillance - United States, 2000," Division of Reproductive Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, November 28, 2003.

[3] The most recent AGI report is available at "State Facts About Abortion," The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2003.

[4] " Prof. Stassen Responds," Between Two Worlds weblog, October 22, 2004.

[5] Michael J. New, Ph.D., "Analyzing the Effects of State Legislation on the Incidence of Abortion During the 1990s," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. 04-01, January 21, 2004.


Andrew Grossman

Visiting Fellow