Category Archives: Statistics

Do Abortion Rates Vary with Legalization?

Pro-life and pro-choice protesters

I recently took part in an online discussion in which it was claimed that criminalizing abortion does not lower abortion rates. The source cited was a 2007 New York Times article titled “Legal or Not, Abortion Rates Compare.”

The person who cited the Times went on to say that, while she opposed abortion as a moral evil, if women were going to have abortions regardless we may as well make it safe and legal for them.

The first problem with this argument is that the best statistic I could find on the subject says that about only (and it is a great shame that I am forced by pro-choice claims of thousands of deaths in illegal abortions to use the word only in such a context) thirty-nine women died as a result of injury during abortion in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade.1

But that aside, I was curious to know just how accurate the claims of the study are. The legality of a behavior has much to do with its cultural acceptance, and its cultural acceptance has much to do with how much it is practiced. I found it hard to believe that a lifestyle choice as heavily stigmatized and as highly controversial as abortion would not become more prevalent with legal sanction.

The study was conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO),  a branch of the United Nations, and the Guttmacher Institute. If you are unfamiliar with the Guttmacher Institute, they are a reproductive rights group founded in 1968 as the Center for Family Planning Program Development, a semi-autonomous division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.2 The Times article did not contain a link to the report, but it can be safely guessed based upon its contents and publication date that the report in question is “Induced Abortion: Estimated Rates and Trends Worldwide.” This report was apparently updated with new data in “Induced Abortion: Incidence and Trends Worldwide from 1995 to 2008.” I will be addressing the updated version of the report in this article.

It is not difficult to find an agenda within the report, namely that abortion mortality is on the rise and we need to make a push for safe and legal abortion, and the Guttmacher Institute has been criticized by the pro-life community and charged with manipulating the data.While other pro-life writers and speakers have focused on exposing errors about abortion mortality rates in the report, I thought that I would focus on the claim that abortion’s legal status does not affect the procedure’s popularity.

If banning abortion does not cause a decrease in the number of abortions performed, then why was there a steady increase in U.S. abortions following Roe v. Wade until 1981? One would think that this hike in numbers would not have occurred if the rate of abortion is truly not linked to legalization. It is, of course, possible that there was another factor that caused a large dip in abortion just prior to Roe v. Wade, or that there was another factor following Roe v. Wade that caused an anomalistic rise.

Abortion by year

A Guttmacher Institute graph showing the number of United States abortions from 1973-2011.

This, however, seems unlikely when one considers that other countries show similar steady rises in abortion rates following the procedure’s legalization. Below is a graph showing the rise in abortion rates from 1969 to 2011 in England and Wales. Abortion was legalized in the United Kingdom by the Abortion Act of 1967, which took effect in 1968.

A graph created by Bioethics Today illustrating rising abortion rates in England and Wales following the legalization of abortion. The graph was created with data from the BBC.

A graph created by Bioethics Today illustrating rising abortion rates in England and Wales following the legalization of abortion. The graph was created using data published by the BBC.

Every country that I managed to uncover statistics for showed the same pattern: when abortion is legalized, abortion rates rise steadily for the next few years. Because of this, it seems almost undeniable that legalization does indeed cause an increase in abortions. Believing the titular claim of the New York Times, that “legal or not, abortion rates compare,” would lead us to expect something very different than what we see: minor up-and-down fluctuations in abortion rates from year to year with no steady rises over long periods of time.

So, then, what is the true cause of the comparable abortion rates between countries where the procedure is legal and those where it is illegal? I believe that the availability of contraceptives is the main factor. According to the Guttmacher Institute,

Eastern Europe presents a very different situation, with an abortion rate that is nearly four times that of Western Europe. This discrepancy corresponds with Eastern Europe’s relatively low levels of modern contraceptive use and low prevalence of highly effective methods such as the pill and the IUD.5

In highly developed countries, like the United States and England, abortion is far less likely to be used as a form of birth control than poverty-stricken nations where more orthodox contraceptive procedures are not available. If abortion were to be legalized in one of these poverty-stricken countries it would likely cause a rise in abortion rates similar to the ones that occurred in the United States and the UK. And if modern birth control were readily available, these countries would likely have a far lower abortion rate than nations where the practice is legal.

I believe that the data shows that legalization does indeed increase the abortion rate and that it is birth control that wreaks havoc on abortion-to-population ratios and contributes to the confusion that surrounds the ramifications of legalized abortion. But whether I am right in my conclusions or not, the claims of WHO and the Guttmacher Institute are a weak support for one’s stance on an issue of such great moral import as abortion.


1. “Before Abortion Was Legal.” Chastity.com. 05 Feb. 2013. <http://www.chastity.com/chastity-qa/birth-control/abortion/before-abortion-was-legal>

2. “The History of the Guttmacher Institute.” Guttmacher Institute. 05 Feb. 2013. <http://www.guttmacher.org/about/history.html>

3. “Guttmacher/WHO Study Is Abortion Propaganda, Pro-Life Leader Says.” The New American. 2012. 05 Feb. 2013.<http://tiny.cc/iw41rw>

4. “FACTBOX: Abortion law around the world.” Reuters. 2008. 05 Feb. 2013. <http://tiny.cc/i041rw>

5. “Long-Term Worldwide Decline In Abortions Has Stalled.” Guttmacher Institute. 2012. 05 Feb. 2013.  <http://www.guttmacher.org/media/nr/2012/01/18/index.html>