Study Claiming European Pro-Life Laws Don’t Work Has Big Flaws

Opinion   |   Michael New   |   Dec 8, 2011   |   7:33PM   |   Washington, DC

This month, the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology published a study that purportedly shows that abortion restrictions in European Union countries have little effect on abortion rates. This study received considerable coverage in the London Daily Telegraph and other European media outlets. However, this study contains numerous methodological shortcomings. As such, it provides precious little information about the impact of European pro-life laws.

First, the study arrives at this conclusion by excluding data from Ireland, Malta, and Poland — the only three European Union countries that offer substantial legal protection to the unborn. Second, the study considers data from only one year, 2008. This is problematic, because the best way to analyze the effect of a pro-life law is to compare abortion rates both before and after the law was passed. Obviously, this is impossible when only one year of data is analyzed. Finally, the authors arrive at their conclusion by computing simple averages of abortion rates in European Union countries. They fail to use regression analysis, which can hold constant economic and demographic factors, which can impact the incidence of abortion.

Methodological shortcomings aside, the findings themselves should cause pro-lifers little concern. The only restrictions the study analyzes are country-wide requirements that a woman must demonstrate 1) a physical-health reason, 2) a mental-health reason, or 3) a socio-economic reason before having an abortion. The study finds that five EU countries that require that women demonstrate a reason for obtaining an abortion (Spain, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Finland, and the U.K.) have similar abortion rates to EU countries where abortion is available on demand. However, the findings support what pro-lifers have been saying for years, that health exceptions (and other exceptions) are too broad and fail to provide any real protection to the unborn.

A much better study analyzing European legal protections for the unborn was published by the Journal of Law and Economics in 2004. Authored by Phillip B. Levine and Douglas Staiger, it analyzed how changes in abortion policies in post-Communist Eastern Europe affected the incidence of abortion. This study was particularly interesting because after the demise of Communism, some Eastern European countries liberalized their abortion laws, while others enacted significant restrictions on abortion. The authors concluded that modest restrictions on abortion reduced abortion rates by around 25 percent. However, studies like this typically receive scant attention from the mainstream media. Note: Dr. Michael New is a political science professor at the University of Michigan and holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He is a fellow at Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.