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State Laws That Lower Abortions


The U.S. House of Representatives and many state legislatures are considering new abortion-related policies, but will these efforts actually result in fewer abortions?

A new study suggests that the number of abortions is reduced when states enact parental involvement/consent laws, informed consent laws, and restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion. University of Alabama political science professor Michael J. New published the study in the March State Politics & Policy Quarterly.

Parental involvement laws require minors who are seeking an abortion to have the approval of a parent. Informed consent laws require doctors to inform women on the risks associated with an abortion, details about fetal development, and the resources available for pregnant women and mothers. As of 2005, 33 states had parental involvement laws on the books, and 34 had informed consent requirements.

Both types of laws were unconstitutional prior to the 1992 Casey decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since then the courts have ruled that these laws are constitutional because they do not place an "undue burden" women's access to abortion services.

The number of abortions in the U.S. has dropped significantly since the Casey decision. From 1990 to 2005, the annual number of abortions dropped by around 22 percent, from just over 1 million to 820 thousand.

New found that some of this reduction is due to changes in state laws. He examined the abortion rates for each state from 1985 through 2005 and found that prohibiting Medicaid-funded abortions reduce abortions by 7 to 8 percent. This finding has a direct bearing on debates in Congress, which is considering new laws that would codify restrictions on abortions funding in the health care law passed last year.

Informed consent laws lower the abortion rate but are not quite as effective in reducing the number of abortions. Such laws reduce abortions by 3 to 4 percent.

One outcome of the November election is that pro-life legislators increased their numbers both in Congress and in many statehouses. For activists, this provides an opportunity to enact new laws designed to lower the number of abortions.

Parental involvement laws, however, have produced mixed results. These laws do not affect the overall abortion rates. However, New finds evidence among the states that report data by age that parental involvement appears to reduce abortions among minors.

Teasing out whether state laws result in changes to abortion rates is not simple. There are multiple ways to measure numbers of abortion. Some researchers use the number of abortions relative to live births (nationwide, there is one abortion for every three births). Others compare the number of abortions to the number of women. New found consistent results using both approaches and using data from both the Center for Disease Control (which collects reports from states) and the Alan Guttmacher Institute (which surveys abortion providers).

The study tests for the efficacy of abortion policies while statistically controlling for factors known to affect abortions, such as the economy and state demographics. The analysis also took into account idiosyncratic effects of states.

New cannot say with his results why informed consent and parental involvement laws are effective. It may be that women change their decisions when confronted with more information on abortions. Likewise, minors may be less likely to seek an abortion if their parents are involved. It may also be the case, however, that women are changing their behavior so that they are less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy in the first place.

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