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:
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):
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?
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:
- New York City
- New York (including NYC)
- Rhode Island
- Washington, D.C.
- New York State (excluding NYC)
And here were the places with the lowest ratios of abortion:
- South Dakota
- Maine [reporting for Maine was incomplete, and may result in a lower-than-actual abortion ratio]
- West Virginia
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. ↩