Quick Notes on the Politics of Abortion and Contraception

As always, Ross’s post on Saletan on the politics of abortion is worth reading. Very quickly, though:

But look at American abortion rates by state: The states with the lowest abortion rates are places like the Dakotas, Utah, Kentucky, West Virginia, Kansas, and Mississippi; the states with the most are places like California, Connecticut, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts. There are liberal states with low abortion rates (your Maines and Minnesotas), and right-tilting states with higher ones, but by and large the most religiously-conservative states seem to be doing a pretty good job on that whole culture of life business already, despite their failure to recognize the moral imperative of welcoming Planned Parenthood with open arms.

It is extremely difficult to get an abortion in the states Ross cites. This article from Evelyn Nieves is a little dated (it was published in 2006), but she notes that:

Even without this latest ban, South Dakota was already one of the most difficult states in the country in which to get an abortion, those on both sides of the issue say. It is one of three states with only one abortion provider (Mississippi and North Dakota are the others), and its one clinic, the Planned Parenthood clinic in Sioux Falls, offers the procedure only once a week. Four doctors who fly in from Minnesota on a rotating basis perform the abortions, since no doctor in South Dakota will do so because of the heavy stigma attached.

Let me hazard a guess that a not inconsiderable number of women living in North and South Dakota are using abortion providers located in Minnesota. It’s also worth noting that these are high-poverty states. My hope is that there is a consensus in these states between conservatives and liberals around providing abortion alternatives and high-quality services for poor mothers, but I’m not sure that’s true — in fact, I doubt it.

Not surprisingly, I think Ross makes a lot of good points, and I think Saletan’s brilliant Bearing Right presents an alternative history of the pro-life movement that I think Ross and I would both find pretty attractive — the Arkansas initiative that sought to sharply increase spending on vulnerable mothers and young children as part of a broader effort to discourage abortion.

Also, I’m not clear on where Ross stands on the contraception question.

Consider, for instance, the idea that the government should dramatically expand eligibility for free contraception through Medicaid, a notion that conservatives objected to when it was tacked onto the stimulus package, and which Saletan links to as part of his latest proposed framework for an Obama abortion agenda.

Ross notes that this would, even in the best case scenario, have a trivial impact on the abortion rate.

That’s not nothing, obviously, but it’s not a whole lot either — and in a country of millions upon millions, where countless trends shift the number of pregnancies and abortions around from year to year, it’s perilously close to statistical noise. When you consider that there’s good reason to think that Roe v. Wade raised the abortion rate by well over 50 percent, I think you can see why most opponents of abortion look at a “more birth control” strategy as a cop-out, rather than a cure.

At the same time, surely this isn’t trivial either:

A recent Brookings Institution policy brief concluded that, in states that have already been granted income-eligibility waivers, this policy led to a significant reduction in the number of sexually-active women who have unprotected sex.

Granted, this is not directly relevant to the abortion question, but I think it’s possible that pro-life conservatives would, as Saletan suggests, build some goodwill by acknowledging that this is a worthwhile goal. Ross writes:

But if religious-conservative objections to contraceptive use were actually a big part of the cultural background to our abortion and out-of-wedlock birth rate, you’d expect to see some actual evidence of it.

I’m inclined to be very sympathetic — but I think we should expand the set of relevant evidence to include the proliferation of venereal disease (including diseases that make it impossible for people to have children, which strikes this pro-natalist as particularly awful), etc. I’m no expert on this issue. That said, I can see why Saletan believes that cultural messaging matters.

Bristol argued that abstinence is not realistic. I’m not inclined to condemn her for saying so. One thing I think people — or rather the people I know — don’t understand about pro-life cultural conservatives is that theirs is not a stance of scolds: teenage pregnancy rates are high in culturally conservative regions in part because teenage motherhood is seen as a familiar but not insurmountable challenge, and that giving birth under difficult or straitened circumstances has follow — there is a tight parallel to what you see in inner-city neighborhoods: as Edin and Kefalas put it, these are Promises I Can Keep.

This is a complicated landscape, and I’m not always sure what I think. I feel tugged between Saletan and Ross.