Roe‘s Effect on Abortion Rates

The latest installment of the Washington Post‘s “Five Myths” series takes on abortion. Number three among the “Five Myths about Abortion” identified by author Rickie Solinger is “Roe led to a huge increase in the number of abortions.” Here is Solinger’s explanation for why this is a “myth”:

According to the Guttmacher Institute, at least 1 million illegal abortions were performed in the United States each year before Roe. Today, the number of abortions performed annually is still about 1 million. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that almost half of U.S. pregnancies are unintended. About four in 10 of these are ended by abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and these are performed in clean, safe, medically appropriate settings.

Roe didn’t mark the beginning of an abortion era — it legalized an already widespread practice.

Solinger purports to be correcting a “myth.” Yet nothing in Solinger’s account is directly responsive to the claim she purports to correct. The number of abortions in 2013 tells us very little about whether Roe v. Wade “led to a huge increase in the number of abortions.” What matters is what happened in the years following the Supreme Court’s decision and whether post-decision trends can be attributable to the Court’s decision, or are better understood as a result of something else.

According to Solinger’s own source, the Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed in the United States did increase dramatically in the years after Roe. As detailed in the Institute’s most recent abortion fact sheet, the abortion rate climbed dramatically from 1973 to 1981. The number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 rose from 16.3 in 1973 to 26.4. in 1977 to 29.3 in 1981. The Institute also notes that the number of legal abortions increased throughout the 1970s. (See, e.g., here.) This is due, in large part, to the fact that jurisdictions began liberalizing their abortion laws prior to Roe.

Solinger is also a bit fast and loose with the numbers she does present, in that the total number of abortions increased from approximately one million at the time of Roe to over 1.5 million in 1981. The abortion rate, and total number of abortions, have declined since the 1980s, but Guttmacher Institute’s latest fact sheet still cites an estimate of 1.2 million — significantly more than the number performed in 1973.

In response to these objections, Solinger might respond that a fifty percent increase in less than a decade is not a “huge” increase. Fine. Reasonable people may disagree about constitutes a “huge” increase, but that’s hardly the argument made in the piece. A second potential counter-argument is that the trend toward more widespread abortion was well underway before Roe and would have continued. This is plausible, but insofar as any pre-Roe upward trend was due to the liberalization of state abortion laws, it’s hard to argue that a sudden, nationwide liberalization is not at least partly responsible for the continued upward trend. A third potential counter-argument is that pre-Roe data on abortion is incomplete and fails to account for the prevalence of illegal abortions prior to 1973. This is a fair point, but it hardly discredits the documented increase in legal abortions in the years immediately following Roe, and can’t explain away the significant increase between 1975 and 1981.

Other factors may well have contributed to the observed increase in the number of abortions in the decade after Roe, and they probably did. Nonetheless, it is quite hard to argue that the nationwide legalization of abortion in 1973 did not at least contribute to the increase in the incidence of abortion in the late 1970s and early 1980s. To challenge Roe‘s significance, one would have to identify broader trends that are responsible for the increase and explain why these trends — and not the nationwide legalization of the practice — were the dominant factors. If such a case can be made, Solinger did not make it.

UPDATE: Ramesh Ponnuru has additional complaints about Solinger’s essay.