by John Lott, Jr.
June 19, 2007
LifeNews.com Note: Mr. Lott is the author of "Freedomnomics."
The abortion debate usually centers on the morality of the act itself. But liberalizing abortion rules from 1969 to 1973 ignited vast social changes in America. With the perennial political debate over abortion again consuming the presidential campaign and the Supreme Court, it might be time to evaluate what Roe v. Wade has meant in practical terms.
One often misunderstood fact: Legal abortions just didn’t start with Roe, or even with the five states that liberalized abortion laws in 1969 and 1970. Prior to Roe, women could have abortions when their lives or health were endangered.
Doctors in some states, such as Kansas, had very liberal interpretations of what constituted danger to health. Nevertheless, Roe did substantially increase abortions, more than doubling the rate per live birth in the five years from 1972 to 1977. But many other changes occurred at the same time:
• A sharp increase in pre-marital sex.
• A sharp rise in out-of-wedlock births.
• A drop in the number of children placed for adoption.
• A decline in marriages that occur after the woman is pregnant.
Some of this might seem contradictory. Why would both the number of abortions and of out-of-wedlock births go up? If there were more illegitimate births, why were fewer children available for adoption?
As to the first puzzle, part of the answer lies in attitudes to premarital sex. With abortion seen as a backup, women as well as men became less careful in using contraceptives as well as more likely to have premarital sex. There were more unplanned pregnancies.
But legal abortion did not mean every unplanned pregnancy led to abortion. After all, just because abortion is legal, does not mean that the decision is an easy one.
Many academic studies have shown that legalized abortion, by encouraging premarital sex, increased the number of unplanned births, even outweighing the reduction in unplanned births due to abortion.
In the United States from the early 1970s, when abortion was liberalized, through the late 1980s, there was a tremendous increase in the rate of out-of-wedlock births, rising from an average of 5% of all births in 1965-69 to more than 16% two decades later (1985-1989). For blacks, the numbers soared from 35% to 62%.
While not all of this rise can be attributed to liberalized abortion rules, it was nevertheless a key contributing factor.
You can read the rest of the editorial at the Wall St. Journal.