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Michael A. Smith: Stick to abortion data, not stunts

  • Published Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, at 12 a.m.

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“I can say now I actually saw a live sonogram during a committee hearing. What probative value it has for the deliberative process I’m uncertain of.” – Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City

It’s a new legislative year, and the politics of abortion rights are back with a bang, or maybe a sonogram.

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, hosted the sonogram demonstration during a recent meeting of the Senate Committee on Public Health and Welfare. The drama occurred during the annual March for Life, which draws hundreds and features supportive comments from Gov. Sam Brownback. Ironically, Pilcher-Cook’s strange theatrics will not prevent even one abortion, but there are other measures that will.

If the right-to-life movement genuinely wants to see fewer abortions, it needs to replace showstopping stunts with hard data. Doing so is not as exciting, but much more effective.

A new report from the Guttmacher Institute doesn’t feature Pilcher-Cook’s flash and dazzle, but it does have a lot more facts. Here is the bottom line: As of 2011, abortion is at its lowest level since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, dropping 13 percent since 2008. This was not accomplished with rallies, blockades, voters’ guides or Statehouse sonograms.

A clearinghouse on reproductive-rights data, Guttmacher employs researchers who found that this drop has little to do with state laws. In fact, some of the states seeing the biggest drops passed few, if any, new restrictions on abortion during this period. A case in point is pro-choice Illinois, which saw an 18 percent drop.

At first, pro-life Kansans may want to celebrate this state’s meteoric 35 percent drop. However, the vast majority of Kansas’ drop occurred before 2010, the last year before pro-life Brownback took office. The drop took place when key state offices were occupied by pro-choice Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson and Attorney General Steve Six, and with a moderate Republican plurality in the state Senate. What gives?

Put simply, Guttmacher researchers found that state laws generally have little effect on the abortion rate. Instead, the demand for abortion is driven by the state of the economy and the availability of long-term birth control. Women are less likely to risk pregnancy when times are tough, and long-term measures, currently popular with women younger than 25, are less error-prone than other methods.

Few would advocate tanking the economy in the name of reducing abortions, but the availability of and education about long-term contraception offer real hope. This will gladden the silent majority of us who are deeply uneasy about abortion but stop well short of labeling it as murder.

Kansans can start taking actions to reduce abortions right now. As a side effect, we might ease the state’s toxic political climate and start electing politicians based on more than just a single issue.

Ultimately, right-to-life advocates face a choice: clinging to the divisive political climate that they helped to create, or actually seeing fewer abortions performed. The data are clear: They cannot have both.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University.

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