In preparation for the upcoming Blogs for Life conference, FRC Blog and held a joint symposium on the merits of incrementalism (approaching pro-life issues on an incremental basis, gradually achieving our goals by compromise and exceptions) versus absolutism (settling for nothing less than full legal recognition of the sanctity for life).

One of the most intriguing entries we received comes from Michael New, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Alabama. Because Professor New doesnt have a blog weve decided to post his essay here.


I really appreciate Family Research Councils willingness to allow me to post a comment on the ongoing debate in the pro-life movement between absolutism and incrementalism. Many young pro-lifers do not realize the extent to which this debate divided the pro-life movement in the years immediately following the Roe vs Wade decision. After all, in recent years, this debate has become somewhat less polarizing. Starting in the mid 1980s absolutists and incrementalists quit fighting over how to design a human life amendment and turned their attention toward changing the composition of the Supreme Court. These efforts enjoyed fairly broad support among various factions of the pro-life movement and tensions cooled somewhat.

The best argument in support of an incremental strategy is that incremental laws have consistently demonstrated their effectiveness at protecting the unborn. I want to begin by

discussing national trends in the incidence of abortion. In 1974, the first full year after Roe vs. Wade, there were 763,476 abortions. These numbers increased consistently until 1990 when there were 1,429,427 abortions according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). However, starting in 1990 something interesting happened. The numbers started to fall. In fact the number of reported abortions has fallen almost every year from 1990 to 2003, the last year for which the CDC has released data.

Now these declines have not occurred due to demographic shifts or reductions in the number of childbearing age women. For the 47 states reporting data in both 1990 and 2003, the abortion ratio (abortions per thousand births) has declined from 305 to 241 and the abortion rate (abortions per thousand women of childbearing age) has fallen from 21 to 16. This means that women today are less likely to have abortions, and pregnancies today are less likely to result in abortions. Good News.

But what happened in the early 1990s that started this trend?

One factor might be the economy. There is some evidence that a strong economy slightly reduces the incidence of abortion. As such, the fact that the economy grew stronger during the 1990s might be a factor in the abortion decline. However, historical evidence tells us that the booming economy does not tell us the whole story. For instance, the strong economy during the 1980s did not result in such a dramatic abortion decline.

Indeed, the main reason for this reduction in the incidence of abortion during the 1990s was the success of the pro-life movement at passing incremental legislation at the state level. Here are some statistics.

-In 1992, 20 states had parental involvement laws (either parental notification or parental consent) on the books. In 2000, 32 states had enacted some sort of parental involvement law.

-In 1992, no states had an informed consent law on the books. In 2000 27 states had enacted some form of informed consent law.

-In 1992 no states had waiting periods. In 2000 11 states had waiting periods.

-In 1992 no states had partial birth abortion bans in 2000 12 states enacted partial birth abortion bans.

There were two factors that led to this sharp increase in state level pro-life legislation during the 1990s. The first was the Supreme Courts 1992 Casey vs. Planned Parenthood decision. Many in the pro-life movement thought that the Supreme Court would use this case as an opportunity to overturn Roe vs. Wade. The fact that the Supreme Court did not do this was a disappointment for many in the pro-life movement.

However, in the Casey decision, the Supreme Court did find many of the provisions included in Pennsylvanias Abortion Control Act to be constitutional. This gave incremental pro-life laws at the state level greater constitutional protection. Prior to Casey, the only types of pro-life legislation that consistently withstood constitutional scrutiny were parental involvement laws and Medicaid funding restrictions. After Casey pro-lifers had more options at the state level. Pro-lifers could pass informed consent laws. These are laws that require abortion providers to give women seeking abortions information about 1) the development of their unborn child, 2) public and private sources of support if the woman decides to keep their baby, and 3) health risks involved with abortion. After Casey, Pro-lifers also had the ability to enact waiting periods and in some states partial birth abortion bans received constitutional protection.

The second reason for this increase in the passage of pro-life legislation is because pro-lifers enjoyed greater electoral success in state legislative races. It is well known that in the 1994 election Republicans won majority control of the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1986 and won majority control of the U.S. House for the first time since 1954. However, it is less well known that Republicans made some very impressive gains in the state legislatures as well.

Prior to the 1994 election Republicans controlled both chambers of the state legislature in only 8 states. After the 1994 election Republicans controlled both chambers of the state legislature in 19 states. These legislative gains were long lasting as by 2000, Republican still controlled both chambers of the state legislature in 18 states Since Republicans tend to be more sympathetic to pro-life legislation than Democrats at the federal level and in most states, these Republican legislative gains made it easier to pass pro-life legislation in many statehouses.

So what impact has all of this legislation had? My research and the research of other social scientists all indicate that these laws have been effective at reducing the incidence for abortion. In 2004, The Heritage Foundation released the first of my three comprehensive studies on this topic. I obtained data on both the abortion rate and the abortion ratio from the both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI). The dataset I examined included abortion data from every state from every year from 1985 to 1999. Holding constant a variety of demographic and economic variables, I found the passage of public funding restrictions, informed consent laws, parental involvement laws, and partial birth abortion bans were all correlated with reductions in the incidence of abortion.

In subsequent studies, I have been able to document the effectiveness of pro-life legislation in a number of ways.

-Separate regressions run on datasets obtained from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) both consistently indicate that the passage of pro-life legislation is correlated with reductions in the abortion rate and abortion ratio.

-Pro-life laws that are passed by a legislature but later nullified by a judge have a negligible impact on the incidence of abortion. Conversely pro-life laws that are passed and take effect are correlated with statistically significant reductions in the incidence of abortion. This shows that the legislation is having an impact and not changes in local mores and values that might be correlated with the passage of pro-life legislation.

-Consistent with my expectations, different types of pro-life laws have a greater effect on different subgroups of the population. This is consistent with the idea that laws are having an impact and not other factors that happen to be correlated with the passage of legislation. For instance, parental involvement laws have a much larger effect on the minor abortion rate than the overall abortion rate. This is unsurprising since minors are the only group directly affected by parental involvement laws.

-Similarly, my findings indicate that informed consent laws have a larger impact on adults than on minors. This is because most minors are likely seeking abortions because they wish to hide either their pregnancy or their sexual activity from their parents. Information about fetal development or public and private sources of support would be unlikely to change the mind of a minor in this situation. However, such information would have a larger impact on an adult who might be seeking an abortion due to financial pressures.

-Finally, my findings are consistent with those of other social scientists who have examined the issue. Every academic study has shown that public funding restrictions are correlated with substantial declines in both the abortion rate and abortion ratio. Furthermore, nearly every policy and academic study shows that parental involvement laws reduce the number of abortions performed on minors within the boundaries of a given states. However, social scientists are split about the extent to which in-state declines are offset by increases in neighboring states.

Overall it seems that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that incremental legislation has been effective at protecting the unborn. Furthermore, the evidence also indicates that and that the decline in the incidence of abortion since the early 1990s is in large part due to the fact that more and more states were enacting incremental pro-life legislation. One can safely say that unborn children are alive today due to the passage of these laws.

Now, the best reason for pursuing incremental legislation is its demonstrated ability to protect the unborn. However, incremental legislation serves an important educational purpose as well. Many people pay little attention to politics and are unaware of the permissive nature of abortion laws in this country. For instance, many are unaware the abortion is legal through all 9 months of pregnancy and that in some states minors do not even need to notify their parents before having an abortion. Campaigns to enact incremental pro-life legislation highlight the permissive nature of these laws and cause many people who consider themselves pro-choice to rethink their beliefs. Indeed, the campaign to ban partial birth abortions during the mid to late 1990s was effective in shifting public opinion toward a more pro-life position.

Furthermore, the pursuit of incremental legislation gives pro-life activists the real prospect of short term victories which are important for sustaining and building a large scale social movement. Indeed, a noble cause by itself is often insufficient to keep people interested and motivated. If people are going to remain active, they need to be convinced that their continued support has a good chance of making a tangible difference in the future. As such, pro-lifers would do well to highlight the success that we have had in passing incremental legislation. It clearly demonstrates how our movement has enjoyed success in the past and how progress is certainly attainable in the future.

Indeed, when I present my research at pro-life gatherings, the most important point I try to make is that the time and treasure of pro-lifers has not been wasted during the past 34 years. Superficially some people think that the pro-life movement has not been successful because we have not succeeded in overturning Roe vs. Wade. And it is true that progress has not come as fast as we would like. However, the votes cast for pro-life candidates at both the federal level and state level has led to the passage of legislation which has been effective at protecting the unborn. Overall, incremental legislation has saved lives in the past and will continue to save lives in the future if we stay the course.