Against Douthat on Abortion Restrictions, Round Two

Ross Douthat has a thoughtful response to two critiques—one from me at the Prospect and another from Katha Pollitt at The Nation—of his recent column on European abortion policy. It would help to clarify some of the empirical issues that are central to our disagreement. I'll leave it to Pollitt to address the dispute about the content of Texas's new abortion restrictions and focus on the points Douthat claims that we didn't respond to. I'll handle them individually:

This variation, in turn, gives us more data on the original question that my column asked: What happens to a modern society when abortion is restricted? And I don’t think that either Pollitt or Lemieux offered much of a rebuttal to my suggestion that Europe’s variations and their apparent consequences pose a problem for two commonplace pro-choice assumptions: That restrictions on abortion don’t actually reduce abortion rates (which appears to be true in neither the U.S. nor in Europe)...

To be clear, I have never suggested that restrictions on abortion don't reduce abortion rates. There is certainly a good deal of variation in how much restrictions matter: In general, restrictions that involve persuading women not to get abortions (while, in my view, pointlessly humiliating) don't have much effect, but laws that make abortions inaccessible by denying resources (like the Hyde Amendment) or by shutting down clinics (an increasingly common trend) have a noticeable impact. The argument typically made by pro-choicers is subtly but crucially different than the one described by Douthat. Pro-choicers (myself included) point out that a significant number of abortions are performed even when they're formally banned, which can be seen not only in the pre-Roe United States but in Latin American countries where abortion is illegal in most circumstances—and abortion rates are still quite high. The fact that large numbers of abortions (some safe, some on the unregulated black market) will be performed under any legal regime is important for reasons I'll return to shortly. But this does not mean that abortion bans and other abortion restrictions don't reduce rates, all things being equal; Douthat is quite right that they do.

Another related point is that just looking at national abortion rights is not a useful measure of how restrictive a country's abortion policies are. When I've tried to make the point that French abortion policy is not in fact more restrictive than abortion policy in most states, at least one commenter will try to rebut the point by bringing up France's lower abortion rates. Raw abortion rates, however, aren't in themselves useful when examining abortion access. There's a missing denominator—what matters is not the overall abortion rate, but the number women who would obtain abortions but can't get them. Legal restrictions on abortion, then, are just one variable—abortion rates might also be lower because increased use of contraception or generous parental benefits reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. This can be seen both in the countries that have higher abortion rates than the United States—where nobody can dispute the policies in these countries are more restrictive—as well as countries (such as Canada and the Netherlands) that have lower abortion rates than the U.S. as well as far more liberal abortion policies.

Douthat continues:

...and more importantly, that any restrictions on abortion are necessarily threats to female professional advancement and bodily health. The example of Ireland, in particular, provides no evidence for the latter contention: No one seriously disputes that Ireland has long had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the developed West, and yet there is no clear sign in the data that Irish women are suffering relative to the Western counterparts in the obvious ways that pro-choice arguments would lead one to expect. Lemieux responds to my points about Ireland by falling back on a philosophical defense of abortion rights, which is fine (and deserving of a response a later date) but not really responsive to the empirical question.

As Douthat correctly notes, my first response to his argument about Ireland is that stringent restrictions on abortion are in themselves bad for women's rights. But this is indeed a normative argument, and I'm not going to persuade anyone who doesn't agree with it in this short space. To make a more empirical argument, I will note that while in theory restrictions on abortion might be compatible with gender equality in other areas, it's not a coincidence that both legal restrictions and cultural restrictions on abortion are more likely to exist alongside more reactionary gender relations. Earlier, Douthat mentions Italy, where abortions are hard to obtain despite a relative lack of formal restrictions. It's also a country with unusually low workforce participation by women for an advanced liberal democracy (and other anachronistic gender attitudes symbolized by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's "Bunga Bunga" parties.)

I would also point out, as Pollitt did, that Irish restrictions on abortion are mitigated by the presence of legal abortion in the U.K., which is a short flight or a relatively inexpensive ferry ride away. Douthat anticipates this objection:

Pollitt responds by noting that many Irish women go abroad for abortion — but those numbers are small relative to the abortion rates in other countries, and in any event they don’t change the fact that Ireland throws up much more severe impediments to abortion than the kind of restrictions that inspired Wendy Davis’s filibuster.

It is true that Ireland's restrictions deny safe, legal abortions to many Irish women who would otherwise obtain them. And it's also true, as Douthat argued, that even were Texas to ban abortion (or get almost every abortion clinic shut down without a formal ban), some women would be able to travel to other jurisdictions, and some affluent women would still be able to quietly get abortions from Texas doctors. But this brings me to what I consider the core of my previous response, which Douthat doesn't address at all:

In the midst of his comparison of Irish and Texan abortion policy, Douthat leaves an absolutely crucial admission hanging there: "Even if abortion were somehow banned outright in Texas tomorrow, it would still be available to women with the resources to travel out of state." Needless to say, Douthat doesn't develop the implications of this fact further, so I'll do it for him. The abortion bans Douthat favors are, in practice, not so much bans on abortion as bans on abortion for the nonaffluent. Wherever they're enacted, bans on abortion don't make safe abortions inaccessible for all women; they make them inaccessible for women who lack connections to a private physician or lack the resources to travel to jurisdictions where abortion is legal. The abortion policy favored by wealthy Republicans in practice isn't so much "abortion should be illegal" as "abortion should be illegal but not so illegal that my wife/mistress/daughter couldn't get one."

Not only is this a powerful—and, to me, dispositive—argument against criminalizing abortion; it's also going to be a crucial barrier to the development of the "pro-life liberalism" Douthat wishes would emerge. It's possible for someone to believe in gender and economic egalitarianism while also thinking abortion is immoral. It's impossible to square gender and economic egalitarianism with policies that make safe abortions inaccessible for the women who are most burdened by carrying unwanted pregnancies to term. It's not a coincidence that American opposition to legal abortion has lodged itself almost exclusively in the party of Paul Ryan.

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