Do Democratic Presidencies Reduce the Abortion Rate?

A popular progressive political argument is that the truly pro-life choice is to vote Democratic. After all, the argument goes, even if said Democrats are vocally “pro-choice,” they’re also pro-social net, and the presence of a social net prevents women from feeling like they “need” abortion. During Republican administrations, in contrast. social nets get slashed, pregnant women feel more desperate (and less capable of caring for the children with which they’re pregnant), and abortion goes up. It’s an interesting theory,1 but is it true?

The first thing that should be said that is that this story is a gross oversimplification for several reasons. For example, it focuses just on the Executive branch: what do we make of periods with one party in control of the presidency, and another in control of one or both houses of Congress? Second, it assumes that the “social net” is always expanded under Democrats and always contracted under Republicans, and that’s not been historically true (more on that later). Third, it ignores the immense role played by state legislation. Finally, it disregards massive factors like the economy. After all, if the theory is that women feel more desperate (and thus, more likely to abort) when they’re economically strapped, that’s something of an elephant in the room.

Having said all of that, is it true that abortions go up under Republicans and down under Democrats? No. The data is much more complicated. There are two sets of data to look at. First, there’s the abortion rate. The “pro-abortion-rights” Guttmacher Institute (named after former Planned Parenthood president Alan Guttmacher) put together a chart neatly showing the steady decline of the abortion rate over the last several years:

Guttmacher Abortion Rate

As you can see, the abortion rate skyrocketed from 1973-1980, across two Republican (Nixon, Ford) and one Democratic (Carter) presidential administrations.2 Since the 1980s, with a few exceptions, it has steadily declined over three Republican (Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43) and two Democratic (Clinton, Obama) administrations. Nothing in that chart suggests a strong correlation between the political party of the president and the overall abortion rate.

The CDC also compiles data on the abortion rate: its own chart shows less volatility, but still doesn’t support the social net theory (the abortion rate is the lowest of the three lines):

CDC abortion rate

But there’s another metric worth examining: the abortion ratio. There’s good reason for progressives to prefer the abortion ratio to the abortion rate in making their case. In hard economic times, women might be less likely to get pregnant, and more likely to abort if pregnant. In such a case, the abortion rate might not go up (since fewer women are getting pregnant overall, the number of abortions might remain the same), but the abortion ratio would. The abortion ratio is the ratio of abortions per 1,000 live births: in other words, once a woman is pregnant, how likely is she to abort?

To find out the answer to this question, I’ve broken down the CDC data (taken from their 1970-2005 and 2003-2012 tables). I’ve then color-coded the lines by political affiliation:

Abortion Ratio by Party

These numbers aren’t perfect. A few states, most significantly California, stopped providing data to the CDC in 1998; while this is a bigger problem for determining the overall number of abortions, it likely still impacts the results, as California typically has a higher rate and ratio. (This is why you’ll see multiple lines in a few places. One line tracks all reporting states; the other lines follow only reliable reporters, to avoid having statistics skewed by states jumping in and out of the data pool).

Despite the imperfections in the data, they tell a similar story to what we saw with the abortion rate. The abortion ratio skyrockets from 1970-1980. In fact, it’s even more dramatic in this chart, since it incorporates a few years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. From the beginning of President Reagan’s first term (1980), a new trajectory has begun to emerge: an overall trend in declining abortion ratios, despite a few short-term hiccups. In other words, the political affiliation of the president doesn’t appear to be a very good predictor of whether the abortion rate (or ratio) will rise or fall.

State and City Data

The local data also suggests that the social net theory is getting something wrong. New York City has a bigger social net than does South Dakota (home to three of the nation’s ten poorest counties). And yet, in 2012, there were some 617 abortions in New York City for every thousand babies born (the rate was somewhat lower, 433, for New York State), compared to only 52 abortions per thousand live births in South Dakota). In fact, per the CDC’s most recent report (2012), here were the places with the highest ratios of abortion:

  1. New York City
  2. New York (including NYC)
  3. Florida
  4. Delaware
  5. Connecticut
  6. Rhode Island
  7. Washington, D.C.
  8. Massachusetts
  9. Illinois
  10. New York State (excluding NYC)

And here were the places with the lowest ratios of abortion:

  1. South Dakota
  2. Mississippi
  3. Idaho
  4. Utah
  5. Kentucky
  6. Missouri
  7. Maine [reporting for Maine was incomplete, and may result in a lower-than-actual abortion ratio]
  8. West Virginia
  9. Nebraska
  10. Oklahoma

To put it mildly, if social nets were the key to reducing the likelihood of abortion, it’s not likely that these would be the results.

1996-97: A Case Study

A close examination of the annual ratio also belies the social net theory. Consider the year 1996. It’s two years after the Republican Revolution, in which the GOP picked up an additional 54 House seats and 9 senate seats (and took control of a majority of state legislatures for the first time in history). The Republicans still have comfortable majorities in both houses of Congress, and President Clinton, a Democrat, is gearing up for re-election. Clinton famously pivots to the right, giving one of the most conservative State of the Union addresses in modern history. At one point, he says,

We know big Government does not have all the answers. We know there’s not a program for every problem. We know, and we have worked to give the American people a smaller, less bureaucratic Government in Washington. And we have to give the American people one that lives within its means. The era of big Government is over. But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.

Instead, we must go forward as one America, one nation working together to meet the challenges we face together. Self-reliance and teamwork are not opposing virtues; we must have both. I believe our new, smaller Government must work in an old-fashioned American way, together with all of our citizens through State and local governments, in the workplace, in religious, charitable, and civic associations. Our goal must be to enable all our people to make the most of their own lives, with stronger families, more educational opportunity, economic security, safer streets, a cleaner environment in a safer world.

Later that year, President Clinton would go on to sign the controversial Republican-sponsored “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act,” better known as the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. Clinton’s actions caused Mark Dunlea (of the New York State Green Party) to remark:

The two main legacies from Bill Clinton’s first term as President will be passage of the various international trade agreements and the repeal of the welfare safety net that existed since the Great Depression. Both issues would likely have been defeated under a Republican President.

Already, we see several problems with the assumption that “Democrats = bigger safety net, Republicans = smaller safety net.” But there’s a yet-bigger problem for the social net / abortion theory. Given what we’ve just seen – that Clinton and Congressional Republicans cut much of the existing federal safety net – we should expect the abortion rate, and especially the abortion ratio, to skyrocket from 1996-97, right? But it doesn’t. In fact, we see a rise in the abortion rate and ratio between 1995-96, and then see them both drop for several years.

Then Why Does it Matter?

Having said all of this, I anticipate an obvious objection: if the president’s political affiliation (and more importantly, the president’s declared position on abortion) have such a minimal impact on the number of abortions, or the likelihood that a pregnant woman will choose to abort, why vote pro-life at all (at least for the U.S. presidency)?

Three major reasons come to mind. First, there are particular areas where the president and Congress can make a big difference. For example, the partial-birth abortion ban is believed to have saved thousands of lives. On a larger scale, there’s the fight over so-called “emergency contraception.” It kills a tiny human being, but because it does so before uterine implantation, the CDC doesn’t count it as an “abortion” (this is nothing more than an accounting and linguistic trick). We have no idea how many lives emergency contraception has taken, but the CDC reports that roughly 5.8 million women used it between 2006-2010. Almost all of that resulted from the Clinton-era FDA’s approval of emergency contraception in 1998.

Second, it’s worth doing the right thing even if you can’t guarantee good results. The law should respect the human rights and dignity of all persons, including the unborn. Take an example from the Civil War: the Emancipation Proclamation emancipated the slaves in the Confederacy, which the Union had no control over at the time (the History Channel has claimed both that it immediately freed 3.1 million people, and that it immediately freed no one; I think both claims are wrong). But whether or not anyone was immediately freed by the Proclamation, it’s worth it to enshrine human dignity in law whenever possible.

Finally, the Supreme Court hangs in the balance. Many of the important abortion cases on both sides (including Planned Parenthood v. Casey, upholding Roe, but with restrictions; and Gonzales v. Carhart, upholding the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act) have been decided 5-4. Like it or not (and you shouldn’t), the most important public policy decisions in America aren’t decided by elected officials at all, but by the 9 members of the Supreme Court. The only thing we have remotely approaching accountability or representation is voting pro-life at the federal level, in the hopes that the next time a seat becomes vacant, a pro-life president and Senate will correctly guess whether or not a particular federal judge is in favor of overturning Roe.

In the meantime, it’s vital to keep up the fight at the state and local level. This is where a lot of the pro-life battles will be won or lost, and in two ways: by passing abortion restrictions, and by creating a culture of life. There may not be a simple law that will turn a place like NYC into a place like South Dakota, but we shouldn’t discount the slow and unglamorous task of changing hearts and minds. After all, the goal of the pro-life movement isn’t just to overturn Roe or outlaw abortion, but to make abortion unthinkable.


1. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of reasons to support a bigger social net, and you can’t read Matthew 25:31-46 and come away thinking that indifference to the poor or needy is okay. The relevant political question is what that net ought to look like, and who ought to be in charge of it. Christians have answered that question differently over the centuries, typically favoring private and localized assistance. What I’m challenging here is the idea that anyone who doesn’t want a large safety net manned by the federal government isn’t pro-life. That accusation is neither charitable, nor (as this post will show) well-supported by the data.

2. Prior to President Reagan, presidential political affiliation was a poor predictor of abortion views. President Nixon (R) viewed abortion as necessary for racist reasons, while Ford (R) described himself as “strongly pro-choice,” although he was publicly anti-Roe while president.

24 Comments

  1. “After all, the goal of the pro-life movement isn’t just to overturn Roe or outlaw abortion, but to make abortion unthinkable.”

    Agreed. Make abortion illegal, and abortions will still happen as they did since time immemorial, until the practice becomes more repugnant in the minds of women than suffering the possible consequences of an unintended pregnancy.

    This is a situation of chip-away, chip away, for as long as it takes.

    1. Abortion is the most abhorrent outgrowth of the Feminist movement. Changing abortion laws without confronting feminism cannot succeed in the long term.

      1. Right, what else started with feminism, Jeff? Domestic violence? Prostitution? Ooh, I got it! Menstruation. Yes. That must have feminism to blame. And, as someone who hates her period, I agree with you – the monster of feminism must be fought back, so we can happily return to the kitchen, or, better yet, to times when we were property and literally belonged to f-ing morons like you. Wait, are you pissed off now that a woman spoke back to you? You poor thing… Wishing even more that we’d be back in the 1400s?

        And you’re right, you won’t succeed in the long term.

    2. AK, you should look into 1980s and early 90s Romania. They had a horrid dictator who thought like you did. So he outlawed abortion (and birth control too, because, let’s face it, you’re not pro-life, you’re pro-birth). Deaths by abortion spiked from almost nonexistent, to 98% of maternal death rate. Thousands of women died. What do you think happened to the fetuses? Hint: they didn’t get to live happily ever after either. Abortions have always happened, and will keep happening until we have near-perfect birth control access and knowledge, a really strong social security net, and safety and equality for women (so the can afford the baby and raise it safely by themselves, even if the father, say, is a domestic abuser). I’m working towards all those things every day. But I’m guessing you vote against all of them, don’t you? No, you have a simple solution — let’s just outlaw something that has always happened and hope it stops. What are you going to outlaw next? Masturbation? Oh, wait, that affects men. I mean, abortion does too — it’s not like it’s a decision a woman makes all by herself, or like she gets pregnant all by herself — but that would be too complicated for your basic narrative, wouldn’t it?

      The best part of living in this century is watching all of you squirm and rage as you lose your undeserved and ridiculous right to dictate how everybody lives their lives. You think that translates to everyone telling you how to live yours, but no one is even trying that… we are just trying to govern ourselves, and let you do the same. But that’s not good enough for you, is it? No, you have to tell everybody what to do. Well, that’s over. Swallow that.

      1. Good grief, G. Romania is a terrible example since, as you said, it was people suffering under a brutal dictator. A more analogous example for a First World country would be pro-life Ireland, which has a lower maternal death rate than neighboring United Kingdom (which has widespread legalized abortion).

        1. G is also speaking out of ignorance when s/he claims that Ceaucescu was pro-life. He didn’t completely outlaw abortions, just the ones he didn’t want. He dictated that every woman was to produce 4 (later 5) children for Romanian communism. Once she had done that duty to the state, she could have as many abortions as she wanted. Women over 45 (risk of birth defects-later lowered to 40) could also get them. You could also get them earlier if you proved a “birth risk”: the next door neighbor to the Romanian I married had a certificate that she could get an abortion since her two children were born deaf. I don’t recall if the certificate was requested by or imposed on her.

          You could also get them if you were connected to the party (although most party members preferred to get an IUD, banned for fertile women otherwise).

          There was, of course, the squishy rape and incest exception of most politicians. And the sensible one of physical lethal threat to the life of the mother.

          I doubt, however, that G will let the facts get in the way of the narrative.

        2. G’s example just became more closely linked to our country after the presidential election. Donald used this issue for the sole purpose to get elected and has moved our country to a pro-hate movement. Abortion is a horrible practice, but so is enslaving women and making them grow something inside of them. We need to spread love of life and not elect officials who hide their evil behind the abortion issue.

          1. I would like to see abortion returned to the state. The way it was before Roe v Wade. I am not purely anti-abortion but I do not believe the federal government should be involved with it at all. Let the voters in each state decide. As for the comment that abortion rose because of the feminist movement, that is pure malarchy. Look at the abortion rates during the Great Depression. And there wasn’t much of any feminism going on at that time. Abortion then as now is largely an economic matter. A child is costly to raise in this country. Poor women struggle with this especially if they are single moms. And many of the women who have abortions already have children.

  2. By culture of life, do you mean supporting education and health for kids, passing maternity and paternity leave so families can stay with their kid when they’ve just been born or when they’re sick? Or maybe some additional funding to combat domestic violence? Or maybe some additional support for single parents or poor kids? Or — wait — some common-sense gun control, so people aren’t dying from homicides and suicides? You know, 98% of women killed are killed by someone they know, usually a partner, and an overwhelming chunk of that is with guns. I mean, since we women are sacred vessels for giving birth, surely you would think sacrificing your precious sport would be worth it to save both men and women from dying needlessly, right? Sanctity of life and all, right? (Btw, if you really like graphs, look up the graph of gun deaths in the US compared to every other developed country… it’s pretty striking, and you don’t even have to spin it in ridiculous ways). Or does your sanctity of life argument stops as soon as you make a woman give birth — something you’ll never have to risk or deal with? I scrolled through your little website, and it’s all anti-abortion, surrounded by some dogmatic, authoritarian interpretation of the scripture. Not one thing about any of the stuff I mentioned. How do you live with such hypocrisy?

  3. “Second, it’s worth doing the right thing even if you can’t guarantee good results.”

    Pro-lifers should be busy chipping away at Roe and the rest at least as much as the Pro-Abortionists are at complaining that their “choice” of death is being chipped away.

    Ironic. If every Pro-life candidate shut up, the Pro-Abortion side would keep the issue very much alive in the political discourse.

    Speak up or be shut up. Silence is not an option on the table.

  4. Couple points: No one wants more abortions. The physical and psychological risks to the mother indicate a society that abuses women. No society can truly seek justice for anyone as long as children and women are so devalued. We all want to better equip women to have real choices. Pro-life and pro-abortion advocates desire better maternity and paternity leave. We all want women to be physically protected. None of us want an abusive partner or parent to coerce a woman into having no choice but abortion (the Planned Parenthood founded Gutmacher Institute has some shocking statistics about THAT). Pro-lifers give of their time and money and selves to give women real options.

    To a more analytical point: How many abortion mills can a person access in SD vs. NY? (If you are pro-abortion, look up the substandard level of regulation required for abortion facilities as opposed to medical clinics, or even just your primary care doc before declaring there must be more facilities!) Why have abortions gone down over all? And despite a decreased social safety net (which most pro-lifers desire to maintain to some extent)?This is important because fewer abortions means healthier women and safe babies.

    My final point, supporting any presidential candidate just because he or she says, I am pro-life now, has failed to bring about more than minimal change. The Partial Birth Ban was passed under W. Bush, but he also gave us Chief Justice Roberts. I would argue the reason for reduced abortions is a combination of pro-life feminists demanding better regulation of abortion and acceptance of female bodies and hearts changed through education about human development and witnessing the trauma of abortion along with compassionate people seeking to give real options and love women left broken. I would also argue many endorsements from private and public figures in this campaign have hurt the good we have built for the past 20 years. We don’t know how much yet.

  5. Good lord. This looks like the type of exercise I used to give my Intro to Stas undergrads early in the semester simply to have a launch pad for examining poorly designed and impossible to operationalize research questions.

    No idea who you are. But cheers for facing up to being shameless. Pretty silly stuff.

  6. And by the way, if you want to at least attempt to operationalize how a *state safety net* might influence a woman’s birth/abortion decision, u should try something like this: use the state’s monthly TANF average or maximum benefit level as a ratio of the average monthly income for women of childbearing age weighted by the income for the proportion of women in each state who have abortions per the following: age, race, and education level. Those measures should all be available (US Census has income by education, age, race, and sex/gender). This will give u some real actual sense of what group of women whose behavior you are actually trying to understand/predict. Even better, if u can, weight by percent rural and urban or get as specific as u can get with geocoded data on those dominant demographic factors. You might not be aware of this but you probably are: the cost of living in South Dakota, for example, is a lot cheaper than in New York. Rural low immigration demand states are more affordable states to live in, even controlling for average income levels (ie: your earned dollar stretches further). Also, TANF minimum benefits are set at the federal not state level so the even the minimum benefit generally stretches further in less expensive states. As you know, New York is very urban and the cost of living is very high especially in the cities. And surprise, abortions are much more prevalent in expensive cities, particularly among the poor. It should also be noted that social and family supports are stronger generally in rural areas. So if you insist on being so very ambitious, you should try to figure that into your model as well as these supports are part of the broader social safety net which we know figure into a woman’s childbearing decisions.

  7. It might also interest you to know that the question of whether a state’s safety net/welfare payments impact a woman’s birth decisions has been studied to death by economists and other social scientists. The answer is not really. There is some evidence for a slight positive effect (higher payments = more births) but it is almost negligible. Other factors are much more important in shaping a woman’s birth decisions. That said, there is plenty of evidence that stronger social safety nets have strong and significant positive benefits for women and children.

  8. Also, this should go without saying, but the decline in abortion is driven by factors that are associated much more strongly with Democratic/liberal orientations and policymakers than Republican. These are: 1) rise in access to contraception and reproductive healthcare (state level Medicaid expansion waivers for reproductive healthcare coverage beginning in the early-2000s are especially important here), 2) the normative trend towards later childbearing and marriage (ie: women choosing to pursue education and career as opposed to early motherhood) which coincides with stronger pregnancy planning as older/more educated women are more effective at avoiding unintended pregnancy (ie: note the strong decline in the US teen pregnancy and birth rate since the early 1990s), and 3) improved knowledge of pregnancy prevention among young/teen women in particular, but all women of childbearing age overall.

    Of course the passage of policy, its implementation, and its actual measurable consequences have lag times – so associating an outcome like abortion rate decline with a specific period of president/political party tenure doesn’t make too much sense. At any rate, one of the important things Obama did after getting into office was to end most of G.W. Bush’s failed abstinence-only sex education program and instead expand funding and access to comprehensive sex education and contraception. Much of this was done with bipartisan support. Evidence is now indicating or strongly suggesting that this policy change, along with (potentially) early stage implementation of the Affordable Care Act (which has been especially important for expanded contraceptive access and reproductive healthcare for lower income and younger women) were important for reducing unintended and unwanted pregnancies. The most recent data on fertility intentions (National Survey of Family Growth) from 2008-2011 indicates a decline in unintended pregnancies for all women, but most importantly, for lower income women. This is salient because this is the first time this stat has declined for lower-income women since the mid-1990s. Arguably, the most important factor here is improved access to long-acting reversible contraceptives which can now be afforded by these women due to subsidized health insurance provision. Access to healthcare provision also means better education for women on how to prevent unintended pregnancies, due to opportunities to consult and work with physicians in order to achieve the best contraceptive option/program to meet each woman or couple’s particular needs.

    Finally, something you might also want to consider: another reason that abortions have declined is that raising a child outside of marriage has become more socially acceptable over time. The overwhelming majority of births outside of marriage are to lower income parents and generally these unions provide less resources and stability for children. This is particularly the case if births are products of unplanned pregnancy, where the couples are much more likely to split up. In this context, research has shown that unstable work, low wages, and weak social safety nets undermine the stability of these parental unions. So if you insist on fighting against a woman’s right to abortion out of some dogmatic fervor, you should consider the context that many of these children are being born into and how stronger social safety nets might be required in order to meet the needs of lower income children and families. This is especially relevant given that real earnings have declined notably for those (and particularly, importantly, men) with less than a college degree since the 1970s.

    1. I wish you had cited more sources in your last comment here. Your post is really worth disseminating to those who are highly interested in voting to minimize abortions based on statistically significant co-factors in real life!

      1. JSYK – I agree with VotingTomorrow’s reply. A bit late in the game now I suppose, but I am interested in your sources. It’s encouraging to see educated conversation on this topic, so thank you for that. I’d like to follow you on FB or twitter if it’s not too presumptuous to ask for that info? The conversation on this thread speaks about “chipping away” and “changing hearts” for their cause… meanwhile others on the other side are thinking the same. As long as we can all try to express our ideas in a way that isn’t completely dogmatic, maybe we can actually get somewhere. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on this and other topics. Thanks!

  9. Abortion will always happen. Other countries such as, Canada and Israel, have higher abortion averages than we do. If we have good birth control ,then less abortions. Fact.

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