Study Claiming Pro-Life Laws Hurt Women Rejected as Bogus

Opinion   |   Michael New, Ph.D.   |   Jan 16, 2013   |   6:33PM   |   Washington, DC

On Tuesday, the website hosted a conference call to announce the release of a new study entitled “Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973–2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health.”

This study authored by Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin appeared in the peer reviewed Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law. The study analyzes data between 1973 and 2005. It reports on 413 cases where a woman’s pregnancy was a factor which led to deprivation of her physical liberty, such as an arrest, a detention, or a forced placement in a psychiatric ward.

The study provides some interesting results: Arrests and forced interventions of pregnant women were disproportionately more likely to occur among African Americans and in southern states. The findings indicate that 84 percent the cases involved an allegation that a woman had used an illegal drug. In other cases women were detained for other reasons such as alcohol abuse, mental illness, or an unwillingness to obtain prenatal care. Overall, the data collection appears thorough. The article certainly succeeds in highlighting individual situations where law enforcement exercised poor judgment by either detaining a pregnant woman or placing her in a situation that was not conducive to her health or the health of her unborn child.

That having been said, the study fails to deliver on its main argument, that the presence of pro-life laws endangers pregnant women. This is for four reasons. First, the data collection starts in 1973. As such, it is impossible to statistically determine whether state abortion bans reduced the amount of legal protection granted to pregnant women. Secondly, the authors fail to statistically analyze whether the presence of a fetal homicide law, or any kind of pro-life law, increases the likelihood that a pregnant woman will face arrest, detention, or some other kind of forced intervention. Third, the number of forced interventions peaked between 1989 and 1991. This is before the Supreme Court’s Casey decision, which led to an increase in the number of state level pro-life laws. Fourth, the study admits that most interventions are clustered around specific counties or hospitals. As such, it seems that most interventions result from the decisions of medical professionals and law enforcement, rather than state-level abortion policies.



Overall, this study provides no statistical evidence that pro-life laws  endanger pregnant women in any way. However, the fact that leading supporters of abortion rights chose to highlight this particular study provides a nice window into the thinking of pro-choice activists. Much of the media coverage surrounding the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision has highlighted the fact that many supporters of legal abortion are pessimistic about the future. Additionally, abortion-rights supporters realize that many imcremental pro-life laws enjoy broad public support. As such, it seems that supporters of legal abortion need a new argument, and apparently plan to use this study to develop it. Namely, that various that legal protections of the unborn endanger pregnant women. The study succeeds in presenting some tragic anecdotes, but it fails to provide convincing evidence that pro-life laws actually threaten the well-being of women who are pregnant. Note: Dr. Michael New is a political science professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He is a fellow at Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.