When abortion policy is in the news, I always get a few dozen messages from people who are mad at me. Their anger doesn’t make much sense as I have never been anti-abortion.
From what I can gather, these people are actually angry at my wife. But this anger also doesn’t make much sense. Liz is anti-abortion in that she thinks abortion is bad and wants to see abortion-reducing policies implemented, but her preferred policies are welfare state policies, not policies regulating the practice of abortion.
When it comes to abortion policy debates, it seems useful to distinguish between three sequential questions:
- Is abortion bad?
- If it is bad, then should government policies be enacted to reduce abortions?
- If government policies should be enacted to reduce abortions, then what should those policies be?
When it comes to the first question, the moral-philosophical debate about abortion has obviously been quite extensive, but so far no consensus on it seems to have been reached. Liz has taken the view that it is bad. This is a fairly common moral view in US society, even among Democrats.
But thinking that something is bad is not the same thing as thinking government policies should be enacted to reduce it. Many people think interpersonal lying and infidelity are morally bad, but few think the government should enact policies aimed at reducing them.
Indeed, this distinction has historically been one abortion advocates have focused on, such as when saying that abortion should be a private decision between a pregnant person and their doctor rather than a public decision made through government policy. The upshot of this argument is that, even if you think abortion is morally bad, you may also reasonably conclude that it’s not something that should be the object of government policy.
On this second question, Liz has taken the view that the government should concern itself with reducing abortion, i.e. that it is not the kind of bad thing in which mitigation efforts should be pursued exclusively through civil society and other private channels.
When it comes to question three, it is widely assumed that if you think abortion is bad and you think reducing it should be an object of government policy, then that means you are specifically interested in the regulations that govern the practice of abortion. This is an understandable assumption given that the institutional anti-abortion movement in the US has so singularly fixated on abortion regulation that tightening those regulations has basically become the goal in and of itself without any seeming regard for how effective the tightened regulations would actually be at reducing abortion.
There are some bad things that can be quickly and effectively reduced by tightening government regulations. For instance, if your problem is that chlorofluorocarbons are destroying the ozone, banning their production and use works pretty well as a solution.
But not all bad things work like this. For instance, if your problem is that marijuana is being used to get high, banning its production and use does not work as a solution because such a ban is very difficult to effectively administer. Or, if your problem is that a lot of people are dying in traffic accidents, a ban on traffic accidents is not likely to get you very far, while a basket of policies including better-designed infrastructure, intersections, and speed limit rules can get traffic fatalities down to almost zero.
Liz’s view is that the challenge of reducing abortion is much more like the challenge of reducing marijuana use or traffic fatalities than it is like the challenge of reducing CFC emissions. And, though I am no expert on this topic, from what I have read, she seems to be pretty clearly right about this.
Abortion rates and levels in the US plummeted by as much as 50 percent since the 1970s despite abortion being legal nationally the entire time. Researchers have estimated that the likely effect of the abortion regulations being enacted after Dobbs is that legal abortions will decline by about 14 percent, with total abortions declining by less than that. While these new regulations will no doubt strand some people seeking abortions in the states where they are enacted, travel and pills will keep abortion available for many more. Most people also don’t live in the states that will ever enact tighter abortion regulations.
Outside of the US, we see that countries with more restrictive abortion regulations than we have frequently have higher rates of abortion. In Latin America, where almost every country has very strict abortion regulations, the abortion rate is over three times as high as it is in the US.
Given these underlying facts, it seems fairly clear that if you think abortion is bad, and if you think reducing it should be an object of government policy, then tightening abortion regulations is not likely to be on the top of your policy priority list. Thus Liz’s focus on things like welfare benefits that can affect certain abortion decision-making margins seems like an obvious move.
Now, I can understand why pro-lifers who have elevated abortion regulation (as opposed to abortion reduction) to a kind of fetishized totem get mad at Liz for this particular policy approach. And I can sort of understand why people who are very invested in the underlying philosophical debate might get mad at Liz. But, from a practical policy perspective, it’s honestly hard to see why pro-choicers get so stirred up about it.