Abortion Waiting Periods Work

A reader over at the National Catholic Register wrote in response to an article about taxpayer-funded abortions in D.C. (thank God I live in Virginia now!):

The idea that women don’t sufficiently “reflect” on their own medical decisions unless forced to by the government is insulting and infantalizing. 

The real effect of these delays is to make abortion more expensive and harder to get. Consider that most women don’t live in counties that have their own abortion providers. A waiting period forces a woman to take two or more extra days off of work. It’s underhanded.

Actually,  studies show that a rather sizeable population of people make life-altering decisions rather impulsively.

I. The Effect of Natural Gas Ovens on Suicide Rates

Consider this startling statistic, from an NPR interview with Scott Anderson, author of “The Urge to End It All“:

In England, death by asphyxiation from breathing oven fumes had accounted for roughly half of all suicides up until the 1970s, when Britain began converting ovens from coal gas, which contains lots of carbon monoxide, to natural gas, which has almost none. During that time, suicides plummeted roughly 30 percent — and the numbers haven’t changed since.

Simply by making suicide a tiny bit harder to achieve, suicide rates dropped a full 30%.  These cases were almost certainly cases of an emotional impulse, where actions were taken which wouldn’t have been taken with a little more reflection.  And remember that of the remaining 70%, a number of them are likely still killing themselves impulsively, just not using the oven.  So for suicide, waiting periods clearly work: and not, presumably, because it means that the suicidal people have to take two days off of work.

Put another way, there are people living happy and fulfilling lives in the United Kingdom right now simply because they happened to have a natural gas oven when they got a dose of bad news.  That’s a ringing endorsement of any measure which encourages deliberation.

But lets look at the statistics from abortion, specifically.  Frances Althaus, senior editor of Family Planning Perspectives, and Stanley Henshaw, deputy director of research for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, decided to research the effects of Mississippi’s laws governing abortion. Anyone familiar with Guttmacher should know it was created as the research arm of Planned Parenthood, so these are statistics compiled by pro-choice researchers for a pro-choice institution.

II. The Effect of Waiting Periods Upon Abortion Rates

Mississippi’s laws includes a twenty-four hour waiting period, and some mandatory information-sharing on fetal development, etc. So anyone wanting an abortion is required to take time to think about the choice they’re about to make, and are given the materials in which to make an informed choice.  And here’s what the Guttmacher Institute found as a result:

In a before-and-after analysis of state-level abortions, the researchers found that the actual number of abortions performed in Mississippi was 22% lower than expected based on previous years. They also found that the number of abortions provided to nonresidents fell 30%, while the number of Mississippi residents who obtained an abortion in Tennessee or Alabama increased by 17%. Overall, the researchers concluded that, among women who would have had abortions, the law prevented approximately 11–13% of them from obtaining one. The law was also associated with women having abortions later in pregnancy: The proportion of Mississippi women who obtained an abortion after more than 12 weeks of gestation increased by 17% in the five-month period after the law was enforced compared with the seven-month period prior to enforcement. In addition, the decline in abortions was greater for women with less than 12 years of education than for more educated women.

You can see the authors’ bias even in how they prevent the conclusions: 11-13% of the women were “prevented” by law from obtaining abortions.  In reality, it shows that for 11-13% of women who would have abortions, 24 hours to think it over, and some information to think over caused them to make a different choice. From a genuinely pro-choice perspective, this should be cause for celebration.  Women, more fully informed than they were before, chose life.  But instead, women are depicted as the helpless victims of the law — that, in my opinion, is what’s truly “insulting and infantalizing.

II. Are Waiting Periods “Underhanded?”

Clearly, any law which saves the lives of 1 in 10 kids who would otherwise die from abortion is a law pro-lifers can be happy about. But as I’ve suggested above, I think that these laws should also be viewed as a triumph for those who are authentically pro-choice, as opposed to pro-abortion.   The laws help to ensure that women aren’t simply buckling under external pressures, or making a decision they’ll regret tomorrow.  After all, “choice,” in any meaningful sense, requires something more than impulse or an action done out of desperation; it implies some level of deliberation and information on the part of the actor. With that in mind, let’s address the reader’s claim, that these statutes are “underhanded”:

The real effect of these delays is to make abortion more expensive and harder to get. Consider that most women don’t live in counties that have their own abortion providers. A waiting period forces a woman to take two or more extra days off of work.

To be blunt, this claim is ridiculous.  First of all, since most abortion clinics are open on weekends, it’s not clear that the women were required to take off work at all, much less “two or more extra days.” After all, it’s a 24-hour notification requirement, so unless my math is really off, that’s one day.  Certainly, some women work seven days a week, but are we to believe that’s the norm?

But more fundamentally, a woman who has a baby is going to be taking a heck of a lot more time off of work.  Are there really women out there who decide to go through nine months of pregnancy and labor, just to avoid having to take off Tuesday?  This depiction of women is far more insulting than anything pro-lifers are presenting. It presents women not only as victims, but stupid victims.

Finally, while this particular study didn’t distinguish by socioeconomic status, it did distinguish by level of education, and found declines across the board.   So it seems that women given even a minimal amount of time and information choose not to have an abortion, and for reasons that can’t be waved away by saying “too much cost” or “too much time” (particularly since, as I said above, both of these are greater with childbirth). That said, women with the least amount of education were most impacted.  But this has a much more obvious explanation: these are the women least likely to be educated on fetal development. So the idea that the declines just came from women too busy at the sweatshop to take time off for their abortions is almost certainly wrong.


Just as their are Britons walking around today simply because they happened to have a natural gas oven, there are children alive today just by the grace of a 24-hour waiting period.  That alone is cause enough to support the waiting periods.  But it does so in a way that pro-choicers should appreciate, by making the woman a more deliberate and better informed actor. Under any serious examination of the law, it isn’t sexist, insulting, or infantalizing. In fact, it’s actually less of a waiting period than is required to even buy a gun under the Brady Bill.  Of course, the waiting periods for both guns and abortions exist for the same reasons: life-and-death decisions shouldn’t be hastily made.

Obviously, I’ll rejoice the day when Roe v. Wade is overturned, and more substantial laws can be put in place protecting the rights of the unborn.  But until that day, 24-hour waiting periods, coupled with mandatory information, are a great way that actually helps the woman as well as the child.


  1. Joe,

    I see a problem with your argument here. I think your end is right but you can’t say, without seeing the numbers and completing some sort of analysis, what led to higher numbers of undereducated folks making this choice. Sorry, but you waded into an area of statistics and I had to point this out. Now, I would love to get the numbers to look at them, indeed this is a great Social Sciences/Econ topic because it demonstrates what happens when potentially irrational actors are given time and resources and then ACT rationally after that time and education is given to them.

    BTW, it persuades me more to say that the women at the bottom are more likely to perhaps have felt forced to an abortion in the first place where educated women are already coming in, possibly, of their own free will, aware of their decision, and in a more premeditated fashion….

    but then again it’s all conjecture without seeing the numbers.

  2. Cary,

    Agreed — we can say that the number of net abortions reduced for educated women, and reduced even more dramatically for less-educated women as a result of waiting periods. This shows that they work, and strongly suggests that the way that they work isn’t particularly coercive.

    Explaining the difference between the drops in more-educated v. less-educated is necessarily conjecture without some more data. But I think that your point, if I’m understanding it correct, just addresses the last paragraph of part II. Everything else can sufficiently accounted for without using level of education as a stand-in for economic freedom.

    So I think that the major point I was making still stands — waiting periods work, and do so in way which both pro-lifers and pro-choicers should appreciate.


  3. Another possibility is that the awareness of the waiting period caused women to avoid conceiving children.

    Things that make childbirth less attractive to women have been known to decrease the abortion rate; things that make abortion less attractive have been known to decrease the birth rate. (Apparently, “hey if I get pregnant, I’ll just x” is in the back of their minds after all.)

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