What happens to a modern society when abortion is restricted? This question is at the heart of the debate over Texas’ new abortion law, which bans abortions after 20 weeks and issues health regulations that could thin the ranks of state abortion clinics, making even first-trimester abortions harder to obtain.
The law’s actual impact may be less sweeping than critics argue. But suppose for the sake of argument that they’re right and that the legislation will dramatically curtail legal abortion. Then further suppose that it somehow survives the inevitable court challenge. What consequences are likely to ensue?
One possible answer is that Texas will make a forced march into squalor, misery and patriarchal oppression. Women’s lives will be endangered, their health threatened, their economic opportunities substantially foreclosed.
To the extent that this case rests on facts rather than fear, it’s based on cross-country comparisons. Around the globe, countries with abortion bans often do have worse outcomes — more poverty, fewer opportunities for women and, yes, often more abortions as well.
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But there’s a problem with these comparisons: They don’t compare like to like, or control for the host of variables that separate, say, sub-Saharan Africa from the United States and Europe. They tell us that underdeveloped countries are more likely to ban abortion, but they don’t tell us whether those bans actually hold back progress and development.
To prove that case, you would need to look at how abortion restrictions play out in a wealthy, liberal and egalitarian society. Here two examples are instructive: Europe in general and Ireland in particular.
In the first case, many European countries have versions of Texas’ late-term abortion ban on the books. France, Germany and Italy all ban abortions after the first trimester, and impose waiting periods as well.
Notably, these nations tend to have lower abortion rates than the United States, and none of them is exactly a reactionary dystopia in the style of Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale.” So the European experience suggests that at least some abortion restrictions are compatible with equality and female advancement.
Then there is the specific case of Ireland, which has maintained a near-absolute abortion ban throughout its history. This ban does not mean that no Irish women obtain legal abortions: Some go abroad for them. But that actually makes the comparison to Texas more apt — because even if abortion were somehow banned outright in Texas tomorrow, it would still be available to women with the resources to travel out of state.
So if liberal fears about the Texas legislation’s impact are correct, one would expect the Irish ban to have produced obvious, disastrous side effects. At the very least, one would expect Ireland to lag in female mortality, health and economic advancement.
Maternal health is indeed a fraught topic in Ireland. The abortion debate there has mostly revolved around how to interpret the “life of the mother” exception, and the high-profile case of Savita Halappanavar, an Indian immigrant who died unnecessarily during a miscarriage, prompted the Irish Parliament to widen that exception.
But there is little evidence that the Halappanavar tragedy reflects a larger trend. Ireland’s maternal health outcomes have long looked much better than those of its neighbors, and even a recent report that produced a higher estimate for maternal mortality still placed the country well within the European norm.
Meanwhile, international rankings offer few indications that Ireland’s abortion laws are holding Irish women back. The country ranks first for gender parity in health care in a recent European Union index. It was in the middle of the pack in The Economist’s recent “glass-ceiling index” for working women. It came in fifth out of 135 countries in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Gender Gap” report. (The United States was 22nd.)
Now it’s also true that Ireland, like most of Europe, is to the left of Texas on many economic issues. All the abortion restrictions described above coexist with universal health care, which Rick Perry’s state conspicuously lacks.
So perhaps, it might be argued, abortion can be safely limited only when the government does more to cover women’s costs in other ways.
But note that this is a better argument for liberalism than for abortion.
It suggests, for instance, that liberal donors and activists should be spending more time rallying against Perry’s refusal to take federal Medicaid financing than around Wendy Davis’ famous filibuster.
It implies that the quest to “turn Texas blue” should make economic policy rather than late-term abortion its defining issue.
And it raises the possibility that a pro-life liberalism — that once-commonplace, now-mythical persuasion — would actually have a stronger argument to make than the one Texas’ critics are making now.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.