But for this week a word (well, a few words) on the argument in this Dana Milbank column, which was also basically the argument in this earlier Milbank column, which is also roughly the argument in this Ruth Marcus column, which is also the argument in this Damon Linker column, which is also a case that Slate’s Will Saletan has made repeatedly in the past, which … well, you get the idea. The claim they’re all making, in different ways, is that even though Planned Parenthood performs hundreds of thousands of abortions every year (while lobbying constantly against any restriction on the practice), to oppose channeling public dollars to its family planning operations is to be objectively pro-abortion, because those operations objectively prevent many more abortions still.
This claim has understandable appeal to the pro-choice-but-uneasy- about-it side of the abortion debate, which is why it’s repeated so often and accepted so uncritically. But as I’ve had reason to argue before (going back years and years), it also runs into some empirical difficulties. Here are a few of them.
First, whether you go state by state in the U.S. or make comparisons across developed countries (within Europe as well as North America), there is very little evidence for the kind of correlation between liberal social policies and lower abortion rates that the alleged “pro-life” case for Planned Parenthood assumes. In the U.S. especially, as I’ve noted before, the correlation often runs the other way: Abortion rates are generally lower in (conservative) states that have more abortion restrictions and fewer publicly funded family planning programs, and higher in (liberal) states where public policy is friendlier to Planned Parenthood, comprehensive sex education, public provision of contraception, etc. Indeed, to the (highly debatable) extent that there exists a “red”/”blue” divide in rates of out-of-wedlock births, it seems to be primarily driven by higher blue-state abortion rates rather than lower blue-state rates of unplanned pregnancy — which is the opposite of what the alleged “pro-life” case for Planned Parenthood would lead one to expect.
Now, this red/blue abortion correlation is not an iron law. In one of the columns cited above, Milbank notes that the ongoing decline in the nation’s abortion rate has been steeper in some liberal states than in conservatives ones over the last few years. I would note that declines are often steeper when there’s more room to fall, but leave that aside for the moment, since all by itself that data actually creates a bigger problem for his argument: The steep decline coincides with the very sort of reduction in federal funding that he claims will lead to more abortions overall. Compare Milbank here …
The Ernst legislation says that “all funds no longer available to Planned Parenthood will continue to be made available to other eligible entities.” But … congressional Republicans’ assurances are suspect, Coleman notes, because they’ve already cut Title X funds by 13 percent, or $40 million, since 2010 — resulting in a loss of 667,000 family-planning patients annually.
… to Milbank here:
… in an Associated Press survey this week of state-by-state changes in abortions since 2010 … states that have passed the most stringent antiabortion laws in recent years, including Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma, have seen their abortions drop by more than 15 percent. But states with virtually unrestricted abortions such as New York, Oregon and Washington have had similar declines. Indeed, five of the six states with the biggest declines — Hawaii (30 percent), New Mexico (24 percent), Nevada and Rhode Island (22 percent) and Connecticut (21 percent) have had no recent laws restricting abortions.
So to be clear: In 2010 Congressional Republicans enacted a more modest version of the policy that Milbank believes will lead to many more abortions, and since 2010 the abortion rate has … fallen in almost every state in the union.
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