On May 15, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed legislation that protects nearly all unborn children in the state.
The “Human Life Protection Act” makes it a felony for physicians to perform an abortion at any state of gestation—including in cases of rape and incest. The law includes an exception for when an abortion is necessary to prevent a serious health risk. State Representative Terri Collins, the bill's sponsor, has made it clear she means for this legislation to challenge Roe v. Wade.
The law's passage continues the good progress pro-lifers have recently been making at the state level. Since 2011, but especially this year, there has been a sizeable increase in the number of pro-life state laws enacted. Earlier this month, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed a heartbeat bill that would ban abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat. And similar heartbeat bills have been signed into law in Ohio, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Missouri recently passed legislation that would ban abortion after eight weeks’ gestation.
Unsurprisingly, the Alabama law was described inaccurately in many mainstream media outlets. But there were some unexpected bright spots. The Washington Post ran an informative article covering both the Alabama abortion ban and the Georgia heartbeat law. Making it clear that women will not be criminalized in either state, the article reports that the Alabama bill specifically exempts women from civil and criminal liability and that Georgia’s penal code has specific defenses for women, including those who miscarry. A subsequent Washington Post article reiterated that these laws would not punish women who had abortions. This reporting has been useful, since a number of outlets—including Slate and Business Insider—have wrongly claimed that the Georgia legislation will allow women to be prosecuted.
But the Washington Post also falsely claimed that abortion bans fail to reduce abortion rates. On the contrary, plenty of academic research shows that the incidence of abortion is sensitive to its legal status. A 2004 study from The Journal of Law and Economics examined changes in abortion policy in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. It found that even modest anti-abortion laws reduced abortion rates by 25 percent. Stronger limits had an even greater impact.
The Post also argued that increased access to contraception will reduce the abortion rate. But increases in contraception use during the 1970s did not result in lower abortion rates. As Mary Eberstadt has noted, “Far from preventing abortion and unplanned pregnancies, contraception’s effects after the invention of the pill ran quite the other way: Rates of contraception usage, abortion, and out-of-wedlock births all exploded simultaneously.” Moreover, research shows that few sexually active women forgo contraception due to high cost or lack of availability.
A 2002 Guttmacher Institute study of 10,000 women who had abortions found that of those not using contraception, only 12 percent said they lacked access due to financial or other reasons. Similarly, a 2012 CDC study of 5,000 teenage girls who gave birth after unplanned pregnancies found that only 13 percent had trouble accessing birth control. And in Unmarried Couples with Children, sociologists Kathryn Edin of Harvard and Paula England of Stanford conducted a thorough study of 76 low-income couples who had recently given birth. Edin and England found that only a small percentage of these women wanted contraception but were unable to afford it.
Even more disappointing than the Post's coverage was Kirsten Powers's USA Today column. Many pro-lifers have appreciated Powers’s previous editorials—such as her piece chastising the mainstream media for their unwillingness to cover the trial of notorious late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell. Additionally, she has supported legal limits on late-term abortions and criticized Planned Parenthood when undercover videos revealed abortion doctors discussing how to harvest aborted body parts for medical research.
But her latest editorial rehashes the tired trope that pro-lifers only pay “lip service to caring about women.” Unsurprisingly, she makes no mention of the 3,000 pregnancy help centers, funded by pro-lifers, that assist countless women with unplanned pregnancies every day. Cavalierly, she argues that overturning Roe v. Wade and enacting pro-life legislation are not effective strategies for reducing abortion.
Contra Powers, a range of incremental pro-life laws have been shown to reduce abortion rates in the United States, and laws that would provide even more legal protection for the unborn would likely lower abortion rates further. Moreover, even if the Supreme Court declines to hear challenges to the pro-life laws passed in Georgia and Alabama, we should remember that the Supreme Court considers public attitudes when deciding cases that affect morality polity. As such, it is wise for pro-lifers to show that laws that offer comprehensive protection for the unborn enjoy strong political support in some parts of the country.
Despite criticism and misinformation from pro-choicers, there is significant momentum on the pro-life side right now. Heartbeat International’s April conference in Dallas, Texas, attracted over 1,300 attendees. On May 10, over 1,000 attended a large pro-life rally in Philadelphia to protest state representative Brian Simms's harassment of pro-life prayer warriors. In addition to the abortion ban that was passed in Alabama, anti-abortion laws are rapidly advancing in Louisiana, Michigan, and South Carolina. Pro-lifers would do well to stay the course.
Michael J. New is a Visiting Assistant Professor at The Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New