- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pro-life laws are part of the reason abortion rates have declined over the past two decades, a study says.

A review of abortion data from 1985 through 2005 provides “solid evidence” that laws restricting but not outlawing abortion “have an impact on the childbearing decisions of women,” Michael J. New wrote in State Politics and Policy Quarterly, a peer-reviewed publication aimed at state policymakers.

Mr. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, studied the effects of informed-consent laws, Medicaid funding rules and parental-notification laws for minors — rules that existed, by 2005, in dozens of states.

He found that all three approaches had significant results in certain populations. For instance, parental-notification laws were correlated with a 15 percent decline in in-state abortion rates for minors. Informed-consent laws, which require pregnant women to receive information about such things as their health, fetal development or resources for parenting, were associated with reductions in in-state abortions by 5 percent to 7 percent.

Legal limits on Medicaid funding for abortion also had a significant impact, reducing abortion incidence by about 9 percent in states with such laws.

There are many possible reasons why abortion rates have generally declined since the 1980s — economic ups and downs are a likely factor, as are shifts in fertility rates or social mores, said Mr. New, who is also associated with the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

But with so many pro-life laws now on the books, it seems time to tease out their effects, he said, adding that his analysis on informed-consent laws is new.

Mr. New’s research shows that parental-involvement laws get parents involved in their children’s lives and reduce the number of abortions, said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

“Almost invariably, it is a parent, not a government employee or business entity, who cares most about a daughter’s well-being,” Mr. Perkins said. “This is why we support common-sense laws that reaffirm parents’ unique role as the decision-makers in the life of their child.”

However, Lawrence B. Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, said the results cannot be generalized.

“The most important point to note is that News analysis is limited to the impact of restrictive state policies on abortions provided within a given state (i.e., in-state abortion rates), not on abortions obtained by residents of that state,” Mr. Finer said.

“Many women who live in the affected states go to nearby states to obtain abortions,” he said. “Therefore, its not possible to draw any conclusions from his study about the impact of restrictions on the incidence of abortion generally (i.e., overall abortion rates),” Mr. Finer said.

The Guttmacher Institute, which collects and reports abortion data from clinics every few years, says abortion rates have stabilized after a long decline. In 2008, for instance, the abortion rate (19.4 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44) and number of abortions (1.21 million) were virtually the same as in 2005.

“A major reason for this decline was that rates of contraceptive use increased significantly from the early 1980s to the early 2000s,” Mr. Finer said.

Pro-choice researchers have long criticized the three laws that Mr. New studied.

Parental-notification laws, for instance, have encouraged some pregnant 17-year-olds to “wait” until they turn 18 to have an abortion, a 2009 Texas study found. This resulted in a 21 percent jump in the rate of second-trimester abortions, it said.

A 2009 study on Medicaid funding restrictions found that it forced one in four poor women to “carry unwanted pregnancies to term,” said a Guttmacher study. Informed-consent laws come under fire because they contain medical inaccuracies or violate “core principles of informed consent,” the institute said.

Nonetheless, these and other kinds of abortion bills continue to appear regularly in state legislatures: In 2010, 39 abortion-related bills passed by states, the Guttmacher Institute said, noting that the new laws were “overwhelmingly restrictive.”

A review by the Associated Press found that many legislatures are pushing abortion-restriction laws as well.

• In Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma and Alabama, lawmakers are considering bills to ban elective abortions after 20 or 21 weeks of pregnancy. This shortens the time frame for an elective abortion by about a month. These bills are modeled after Nebraska’s “fetal pain” law, which outlaws abortions after 20 weeks of gestation because research suggests that the fetus can feel pain by then.

• In Ohio, lawmakers are considering an even shorter window for abortion — before a doctor can hear a fetal heartbeat, or as early as six weeks into the pregnancy. Two pregnant women underwent ultrasounds at a recent hearing so lawmakers could see and hear the fetal hearts.

• On March 22, South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard enacted a law that requires a 72-hour waiting period before a woman can have an abortion. This is the longest waiting period in the nation; the law also requires women to undergo counseling at a crisis pregnancy center.

• In Virginia on Monday, Gov. Bob McDonnell signed a bill requiring any facility that performs five or more first-trimester abortions a month to meet hospital health and safety standards — a move that opponents of the law say would raise the costs of procedures because clinics would have to hire more people and make costly changes to the facilities.

Across the nation, pro-choice advocates are dismayed by the content and the number of abortion bills.

“We’re seeing an unprecedented level of bills that would have a serious impact on women’s access to abortion services that very possibly could become law,” said Rachel Sussman, a senior policy analyst for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

However, pro-life supporters are excited by the surge of bills — and the renewed pro-life makeup of many state legislatures.

“Until the bills get on the governors’ desks, it’s premature to claim victory. But it’s moving faster than it has in previous years. … We’re very pleased with the progress thus far,” said Mary Spaulding Bach of the National Right to Life Committee.

Insurance coverage of abortion is also a hot topic. In Congress, a bill has been introduced to block federal funds from paying for abortions, even indirectly, under the new health care law, and to codify the Hyde amendment, which also prohibits federal funds from paying for abortions under most circumstances.

In addition, about 20 states have bills to restrict insurance coverage of abortion.

“You could have nearly half the states where you couldn’t buy regular insurance coverage for abortion even with your own money,” said Donna Crane of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “This is having a transformational effect on the insurance industry.”