STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 08/21/2007

FEATURE | What Does Economics Have to Do with Abortion?

Story Bruce Webb
Image Return Design interns

Books about economics (aka "the dismal science") rarely make the bestseller lists, but Freakonomics by Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dunbar is a recent exception. This entertaining and accessible book shows how economic analysis can help us answer questions usually thought to be outside the scope of the discipline. Chapters such as "Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?" and "What Do Schoolteachers and Sumo Wrestlers Have in Common?" reveal surprising and even counterintuitive results.

One of the most controversial chapters in Freakonomics deals with the alleged connection between abortion and crime. Based on earlier technical work by Levitt, the authors claim the sharp increase in abortions after Roe v. Wade caused the crime rate to fall in the 1990s; that those who were aborted were more likely to grow up in circumstances that would have led them to commit crimes than those who were not aborted. What disturbed me most about their claim was not the statistical relationship (which has since been questioned by other researchers) or even the cause and effect argument (which is plausible), but the unstated though rather obvious conclusion that legalized abortion creates positive social benefits: If you want less crime, abort more babies, especially babies who would otherwise be born into situations in which poverty, poor education, and lack of positive male role models would increase the chances they would commit crimes later in life. If this was the best that economics had to offer, then pro-lifers were justified in dismissing it as, at best, irrelevant.

However, reading technical papers by Levitt and his critics did create a spin-off benefit for me. I became aware of a much larger body of literature written by economists and other social scientists, which used economic analysis and sophisticated statistical (econometric) tools to study the demographic, economic and policy factors that affect a woman's choice to have an abortion. This seemed to me to be a more promising and potentially useful application of economics to the study of abortion. Economists are trained to study how changes in incentives affect people's choices. This can be something as mundane as predicting the effect of a change in the price of coffee on the quantity of coffee and alternative beverages purchased by consumers. In the case of abortion, changes in incentives might include such factors as a change in welfare benefits, or economic circumstances, or the passing of a state law requiring informed consent prior to an abortion. As an economist and active member of the pro-life movement, I felt obliged to see if something of value could be gleaned from this literature.

During a subsequent sabbatical I pored over dozens of studies--many published in respected academic journals--and found some interesting results with important policy implications. For example, one recent study found that states with laws that restrict Medicaid funding for abortion or require "informed consent" from women seeking an abortion have lower abortion rates than states without these laws. Another study found that states that have adopted "family cap provisions" of the 1996 welfare reform bill, which allow states to deny benefits to women that have additional children while on welfare, have had no significant change in fertility rates, which strongly implies no effect on abortions. A number of studies that have looked at the relationship between the level of welfare benefits and abortion have found little if any relationship. Finally, still other studies have failed (for the most part) to find a solid link between abortion and economic conditions (e.g., unemployment).

Interesting as these results may be, a word of caution is in order. Conclusions drawn from econometric studies should be taken as tentative. New research using different research methodologies and data sets sometimes leads to results that are at odds with earlier studies. Care must be taken in drawing firm conclusions unless there is a broad consensus among researchers.

Nonetheless, I believe economic studies can support pro-life groups as they strategize about ways to reduce the number of abortions. First, the research shows that state laws restricting abortion do make a difference. While pro-life activists have known this intuitively, there is now evidence that validates the results of their efforts. Passage of "informed consent" laws and Medicaid funding restrictions should be at the top of the pro-life agenda in those states that have not yet done so.

Second, these studies help us evaluate claims about abortion trends and their causes. Just prior to the 2004 presidential election, a prominent professor of Christian ethics made the startling and counterintuitive claim that economic and social welfare polices of the Bush administration had led to an increase in the abortion rate (calculated as the number of abortions per one thousand women of childbearing age) after Clinton policies had led to a decline. His proposal: to cut down on abortions, pro-lifers should break with conservatives and join with liberals to reduce unemployment and promote increased welfare and healthcare benefits. While subsequent data showed that the abortion rate actually declined during the Bush years and that during Clinton's presidency it fell most sharply prior to the booming economy of the late '90s, one still hears calls for pro-life and pro-choice forces to find common ground to reduce the number of abortions. While seeking common ground is hard to oppose, the evidence shows that economic conditions and welfare generosity have little impact on abortion rates. These matters are, of course, important in their own right, but they should not be seen as substitutes for effective pro-life legislation.

Finally, we should bear in mind that while economic studies can direct us to policies that will reduce the number of abortions (surely a good thing), the ultimate goal must be to overturn the Supreme Court decisions that have made abortion-on-demand a legal right and allowed the killing of approximately 45 million unborn babies. Economics has little to offer about strategies for reaching this goal.

Bruce Webb, Ph.D., has taught economics at Gordon College for 30 years. He is currently chairman of the Board of Directors of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, the state's largest and most comprehensive pro-life organization, where he also serves on the Executive Committee and chairs the Finance Committee.


The Economics of Abortion