Are Pro-Life laws Based on Sound Science? Yes. Here’s How

Opinion   |   Michael New Ph.D.   |   Jun 6, 2017   |   4:58PM   |   Washington, DC

Last month, the Guttmacher Institute released a policy analysis claiming that many state pro-life laws have no scientific basis. The analysis considers various categories of state-level pro-life laws and concludes that 53 percent of women of childbearing age live in a state with at least two restrictions “that conflict with the scientific evidence.” In the news release that accompanied the policy analysis, one author claims that “the antiabortion movement has long been an evidence-free zone and many of its signature initiatives and proposals are devoid of any factual foundation.”

The Guttmacher analysis evaluates ten major types of pro-life laws and details the ways in which they supposedly conflict with established science. The restrictions are grouped into three broad topic areas: 1) restrictions targeting abortion providers, 2) counseling and waiting-period requirements, and 3) restrictions using fetal pain as a pretext. Unsurprisingly, the Guttmacher analysis is very selective in terms of the scientific research it cites. A broader view of the same research topics clearly shows that many pro-life laws in each of these three categories are consistent with high-quality, established, peer-reviewed science.

Restrictions Targeting Abortion Providers

The deplorable conditions in Kermit Gosnell’s Philadelphia clinic received national attention during the abortionist’s 2013 criminal trial for violating state abortion-safety laws. While they don’t often receive similar attention, several other investigations have revealed that many abortions are performed in substandard conditions.

Over the past six years, over 175 abortion facilities have faced investigations, criminal charges, administrative complaints, and civil lawsuits related to the conditions in which abortions were provided. Clinic regulations established in Virginia in 2011 allowed for the discovery that several clinics were performing abortions in unsanitary conditions.

Opponents of abortion-clinic regulations often target  hall-width requirements for particular ridicule. In reality, these requirements are put in place to ensure that patients can be quickly and safely evacuated in case of a medical emergency. In Gosnell’s case, for example, the maze-like structure of the hallways made it impossible for emergency medical respondents to remove a woman from the clinic, and that delay contributed to her eventual death from abortion complications.

Counseling and Waiting-Period Requirements

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Groups that support legal abortion often claim that abortion does not increase the risk of physical- or psychological-health problems. These activists attempt to shut down debate by trotting out a list of statements from professional and academic organizations asserting that abortion does not, in fact, increase health risks in a variety of areas. But the claims from these academic organizations do not always reflect the best research or any kind of scholarly consensus. Sometimes the positions simply reflect the attitudes of those who are most involved with the organizations, often pro-abortion groups. Furthermore, academic and professional organizations at times adopt positions for political reasons rather than because of their accuracy.

This is especially evident in the case of abortion, and a closer look at the research tells a different story from the one that pro-abortion groups like Guttmacher present. Skeptics of the abortion–breast cancer link often argue that the Danish study by Melbye et al., published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997, is the methodologically strongest study on the topic. They often ignore the fact that this study found that abortions after 18 weeks of gestation are correlated with a statistically significant increase in the risk of breast cancer. Furthermore, a meta-analysis of 22 studies examining the pregnancy experiences of over 800,000 women, published by the British Journal of Psychiatry, showed that women who had abortions were at a significantly greater risk for mental-health problems.

Regarding waiting periods, Guttmacher’s own analysis of Utah’s 72-hour waiting period demonstrates the scientific merit of that particular policy. The pro-abortion group in fact found that, of 500 women seeking abortions, approximately 8 percent did not go through with the procedure. Importantly, women who remained pregnant reported a higher-than-average degree of conflict about obtaining an abortion. In other words, these women were less confident in their decision to seek an abortion.

When the pregnant women were asked why they did not go through with the abortion, 71 percent said that they had changed their mind, rather than as the result of state restrictions. The study only identified one woman who legally could not get an abortion because her pregnancy reached the gestational age limit. Overall, the Utah study nicely demonstrates that waiting-period laws are grounded in good science. A non-trivial percentage of women who seek abortions are conflicted about the decision, and waiting periods often result in some of those conflicted women choosing life-affirming alternatives.

Fetal Pain

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a useful article in the summer of 2011 detailing the ongoing debate within the scientific community on this topic. The article cited a number of prominent neonatal and pediatric researchers, who argue that unborn children can feel pain at 20 weeks. Among those researchers were Martin Ward Platt, an honorary clinical reader in neonatal and pediatric medicine at Newcastle University, and Sunny Anand, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas. Notably, none of the researchers cited or quoted in the article have been involved with the pro-life movement.

Groups that support legal abortion, along with their allies in the mainstream media, tend to portray abortion-policy debates as being between credentialed scientists on one side and ignorant pro-life activists on the other. The reality is far more complicated. There are rich and nuanced debates about many aspects of public policy related to abortion. Unsurprisingly, the authors of the Guttmacher analysis are very selective in the studies they cite. A broader review of the relevant research indicates that most pro-life laws are based on sound scientific principles.

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Kermit Gosnell’s Labyrinth of Terrors Note: Dr. Michael New is a professor at Ave Maria University. He is a former 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.