Do restrictive abortion laws reduce the abortion rate?

A new study claims that more restrictive abortion laws do not reduce the incidence of abortion. In fact, the opposite may be the case, it says. If true, this would be a big blow to the pro-life movement which obviously fights for more restrictive laws. But a closer look at the study shows no such simple conclusion can be drawn. In fact, if you add up the figures differently you could conclude the restrictive laws do, in fact, reduce the incidence of abortion.

The authors arrive at their conclusion by leaving out the two most populous countries in the world, China and India, both of which have permissive abortion laws. When you include them, it turns out that abortion is lower in countries with more restrictive laws.

In the period 2015-19, in countries where abortion is broadly legal, the abortion rate per 1,000 women aged 15-49 was 40. The rate was 36 where abortion is restricted. In the same period, 70% of unintended pregnancies ended in abortion in countries where it is broadly legal, while in countries where it is restricted, this happens only in 50% of the cases, according to the study.

This indicates that where more restrictive laws are in place, both the abortion rate and the number of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion are lower, compared to countries with more liberal abortion regimes.

There is no simple cause and effect between legislation and those two rates, of course, as they are determined by a complex number of factors (socioeconomic conditions, quality of the health system, culture, etc).

When the authors leave out China and India, they find that the abortion rate in countries where abortion is legal decreases from 40 per 1,000 women to 26 per 1,000 women, meaning it is lower than in countries with restrictive regimes.

The authors believe including China and India skews the figures.

What do these very different conclusions about the abortion rate and the law show? They show that it is very hard to compare countries that are culturally and economically very different.

What we do know, however, is that here in Ireland, the number of abortions increased substantially last year, post-legalisation. Under the conditions of the 8th amendment, Ireland had a low abortion rate compared with basically every other Western country. The figures are now moving firmly in the wrong direction.