For those who have not been following the comments on my recent post on the Freedom of Choice Act, an objection was raised that restrictions on abortion merely trade a lower abortion rate for a higher rate of teenage pregnancy. Now those who believe abortion is murder might think that a reasonable trade–the lesser of two evils and all–but even if so, it is hardly an ideal situation. Better by far would be to reduce both teenage pregnancy and abortion, and a truly pro-life position must not ignore the negative consequences of its actions. Thus N. Adam claims the pro-life acceptance of this trade-off is one more instance of our “caring more about the welfare of the unborn than the born.”
In support of such a claim, it can be pointed out that most of those states with the highest teenage birth rates are in the South, and many of these are Red states. These numbers are a bit skewed, however, by the fact that a high abortion rate can mask a similarly high pregnancy rate. Still, even when comparing overall teenage pregnancy rates, it is clear that the South is not doing well. According to the Guttmach Institute (an arm of Planned Parenthood; figures are for 2000, the latest I can find), the five states with the highest teenage pregnancy rates per 1000 girls are (with Abortion rank and percentage):
1. Nevada: Pregnancy rate 113/1000 (Abortion: 4th highest; 36%)
2. Arizona: 104 (A 19th; 21%)
3. Mississippi: 103 (A 28th; 16%)
4. New Mexico: 103 (A 18th; 22%)
5. Texas: 101 (A 26th; 17%)
Nevertheless, the fact that these are all in the South, and include some states with pro-choice policies (e.g. Guttmacher ranks New Mexico the 6th best for “efforts to help women avoid unplanned pregnancy”) strongly points to a cultural factor–this is clearly not just a matter of access to contraception and abortion or even “Red vs. Blue.” Thus, some very Red and very anti-abortion Midwestern states (like the Dakotas) are among the lowest in pregnancy and birth rates: North Dakota has the best overall teenage pregnancy rate (42/1000) and the 3rd best abortion rate (8%); South Dakota has the 7th best pregnancy rate (54/1000) and the 2nd best abortion rate (7%).
These numbers are also skewed by the fact that abortion restrictions and contraception restrictions (too) often go hand-in-hand, especially in the South. So if we want to get a better idea of the impact of abortion restrictions themselves–and thus the likely impact of FOCA’s passage, which would eliminate all such restrictions–we should instead look at the rankings for highest abortion percentages, and here the claim that increased access to abortion lowers teenage pregnancy rates collapses in ruin. According the Guttmacher Institute’s own numbers, the five states with the highest teenage abortion rates are all among the top 16 highest teenage pregnancy rates, and all are Blue states (with overall teenage pregnancy rank and rate/1000 girls):
1. New Jersey: 47% Abortion rate (Pregnancy rank 16th highest; 90/1000)
2. New York: 46% (P 14th; 91)
3. Maryland: 38% (P 13th; 91)
4. Nevada: 36% (P 1st; 113)
5. California: 36% (P 7th; 96)
Predictably, four of these states have very permissive abortion laws (California, Maryland, New York and New Jersey; Nevada is something of an exception, and in fact is not clearly Blue, though it went for Obama). More surprisingly, and according to Guttmacher, three of the four provide excellent access to contraception and related services: California (1st), New York (5th) and Maryland (12th) are all in Guttmacher’s top 12, though Nevada (34) and New Jersey (43!) get low scores. In other words, these states have some of the best access to abortion and contraception but not only have very high abortion rates (predictably), but also have consistently higher teenage pregnancy rates. In contrast, the five states with the lowest abortion rates are all among those with the 25 lowest teenage pregnancy rates:
46. West Virginia 10% abortion rate (Pregnancy rank 35th; 67/1000)
47. Kentucky 8% (P 25th; 76)
48. North Dakota 8% (P 50th; 42)
49. South Dakota 7% (P 44th; 54)
50. Utah 6% (P 45th; 53)
Note that this does not just measure overall numbers of abortion, but the abortion rate per pregnancy. In other words, Utah, South Dakota and North Dakota are not just low on the list because they have few pregnancies; they have the fewest pregnancies and the smallest percentages of those pregnancies end in abortion. Four of these five states have in place the very laws FOCA would eliminate (West Virginia is the exception).
Now clearly there is much more involved in these differences in teenage pregnancy and abortion rates than a few parental consent laws. There are, very obviously, strong cultural differences that no laws (for or against abortion) can eliminate. Thus, it is often rightly pointed out that, even if criminalized, many women would still seek abortions (though clearly this is more true in certain parts of the country than others). But the opposite is also true: even where abortion is legal, it can remain rare if the culture continues to view it as objectionable (as in parts of the Midwest), and this by no means needs to lead to higher pregnancy rates. In short, and as I have emphasized on numerous occasions, it is not the laws that need fixing so much as people’s hearts and minds. So long as we pretend that casual sex and abortion can be morally neutral and consequence free, we will have states like New Jersey and New York with extremely high abortion and teenage pregnancy rates.
But at the same time, it can hardly be an accident that four of the five states with the highest rates of abortion already have FOCA like laws on the books and yet still are among the worst in teenage pregnancy, while four of the five states with the the lowest abortion rates have the very kinds of laws FOCA would repeal and some of the best rates of teenage pregnancy. All of which renders very problematic the claim that restricting access to abortion inevitably leads to higher rates of teenage pregnancy. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case.