Dobbs Saves Lives
Is it true that outlawing an act doesn’t do anything to reduce how much that act is committed? The Supreme Court provides a definitive answer.
One common claim among advocates of legal abortion is that outlawing abortion doesn’t do anything to reduce abortion rates. Catholic author Rebecca Bratten Weiss makes one such argument in a May 2022 piece lamenting the imminent handing down of the Dobbs decision:
You might start out, understandably, thinking that making abortion illegal would be the obvious solution. But you would find that there is little evidence that banning abortion leads to reduced abortion rates. Women do not stop seeking out abortion just because it is illegal. But making it illegal does affect how and where they procure it.
I’ve never understood why anyone takes this argument seriously. Is there any other crime that becomes more common when it is made illegal? There are certainly crimes and other violations of civil law that are common despite being illegal. Drugs are abused, and people speed on the highway in spite of laws saying they shouldn’t. But if these activities were legal, then the people who refrained from these activities only out of fear of legal punishment would cause the total number of people who engage in them to increase since they have no reason to refrain anymore.
Along with this simple argument from reason, we have empirical evidence that shows that abortion is not unique when compared to other crimes that—surprise, surprise—happen less when they become illegal. Abortion rates have noticeably decreased after the Supreme Court allowed states to outlaw the procedure. According to the non-partisan website fivethiryeight.com:
In all states that saw declines in their abortion numbers—which include the fifteen states in which abortion was banned or severely limited over the summer—the number of abortions fell by about 22,000. Some of those women appear to have traveled out of state, because in other states, the number of abortions rose by an aggregate of about 12,000.
But nationwide, the movement of abortions from states with bans and restrictions to those with fewer restrictions on access wasn’t enough to make up the shortfall. Between April and August, the number of abortions declined by 6 percent, and it’s likely that the decline in abortions represents thousands of women who sought abortions illegally or didn’t get one at all. If these trends persist, there could be at least 60,000 fewer abortions in the next year as a result of the Dobbs decision.
In fact, we didn’t have to wait until the Dobbs decision to know that abortion bans and other pro-life legislation save lives by decreasing the number of abortions that happen. After Texas banned abortions after six weeks of pregnancy in 2021 (which was upheld by the Supreme Court), abortion rates decreased by 60 percent. Sociologist Michael New has shown that even modest abortion restrictions, like waiting periods and informed consent laws, lead to a reduction in abortion rates.
According to The Washington Post, “states with more people who oppose abortion rights tend to have lower abortion rates.” Low abortion rates in states like South Dakota are due in part to public demonstrations at abortion facilities, education campaigns, and pro-life legislation mandating informed-consent laws and waiting periods. What should be common sense is borne out by statistics: in places with few abortion facilities and many pro-life advocates, there are fewer abortions. For example: Wyoming and Vermont have similar populations and household incomes, but whereas Vermont has six abortion facilities, Wyoming has only one. In 2017, 140 abortions were committed in Wyoming but 1,200—over eight times as many—in Vermont.
Finally, even prior to Dobbs, thousands of women in the United States were unable to get abortions because they were “too pregnant,” or because the procedure was too expensive. One study estimated that 4,000 women were turned away from abortion facilities annually simply because they are too far along in their pregnancies. However, the vast majority of these women do not break the law in order to pay for their abortions, nor do they try to perform the abortion themselves. Instead, they give birth to their children.
There are certainly other means to reduce abortion rates apart from making the procedure illegal. These include policies that encourage pregnancies within marriage, providing resources to couples facing unplanned pregnancies, and educating the public on the inhuman nature of abortion. But this does not mean that pro-life advocates should push only these kinds of policies, because the law is capable of teaching people what is and isn’t moral. The following words from Martin Luther King, Jr. apply just as much to abortion today as they did to the evils of racism decades ago:
It may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. It maybe true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, religion and education will have to do that, but it can restrain him from lynching me. And I think that’s pretty important also. And so that while legislation may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men.