The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Antiabortion advocates have a logic problem

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) holds a news conference to discuss the introduction of the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in the Senate in the U.S. Capitol in Washington June 11, 2015. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that legislation introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) would ban all abortions after five months. The legislation includes exceptions for saving the life of the mother and certain instances involving rape and incest. This version has been corrected.

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on Thursday — the very day the bachelor senator was dubbed a "bro with no ho" by his fellow Senate Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois — proclaimed himself to be "on the right side of history."

It ain’t so, Bro.

What led Graham to believe himself on history’s side was his introduction of legislation banning abortions after five months (with exceptions for saving the life of the mother and certain instances involving rape and incest). But while the verdict of the ages has yet to be returned, Graham, a GOP presidential candidate, certainly is not on the right side of logic.

The procedures Graham seeks to ban account for less than 1.5 percent of all abortions in the United States, and those are often the most difficult cases, such as the woman who discovers late in pregnancy that she has cancer. Even in the extremely unlikely event Graham were to persuade his colleagues and President Obama to agree to the bill, it would make barely a dent in the number of abortions. By contrast, if Graham were to support efforts to make contraception cheaper and more widely available, the number of abortions would almost certainly plummet.

Alas, politics gets in the way. Opposing late-term abortions does next to nothing to reduce abortions, but it works well with Republican presidential primary voters. Broadening the use of contraceptives would seriously reduce abortions, but it would be poisonous to the GOP primary electorate.

The paradox — antiabortion advocates' antipathy to the policy that would do the most to achieve their goal — was highlighted in an Associated Press survey this week of state-by-state changes in abortions since 2010.

Some states that have passed the most stringent antiabortion laws in recent years, including Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma, have seen their abortions drop by more than 15 percent. But states with virtually unrestricted abortions such as New York, Oregon and Washington have had similar declines. Indeed, five of the six states with the biggest declines — Hawaii (30 percent), New Mexico (24 percent), Nevada and Rhode Island (22 percent) and Connecticut (21 percent) have had no recent laws restricting abortions.

The only states with notable increases in abortions were Louisiana and Michigan, both of which passed laws restricting abortions. Apparently, abortion-seekers visited those states because of more stringent restrictions in neighboring states — more evidence that the restrictions haven’t deterred abortion.

To explain this, I turned to my friend Will Saletan of Slate, an authority on abortion and author of "Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War."

"All the research shows the single most effective way to reduce abortion is contraception," he said. "The problem with pro-life groups is all the solutions they promote to reduce the abortion rate, none of them moves it in a reliably positive direction. . . . The data show no reliable correlation between the degree of restrictions in a state and the abortion rate."

Yet pro-life groups refuse to take up the cause of birth control, because so many of their supporters have problems with that, too. “They’ve betrayed the one thing they stand for, which is reducing abortions,” Saletan said.

A 2014 study by the Guttmacher Institute (an abortion-rights outfit but one whose research is cited by both sides) found that between 2008 and 2011 "a combination of increased contraceptive use and greater reliance on highly effective methods helped reduce overall levels of unintended pregnancy and subsequent abortion." In particular, Guttmacher credits an increase in the use of "long-acting, reversible contraceptives" such as new-generation IUDs.

But antiabortion groups question this conclusion. Charmaine Yoest, who runs Americans United for Life, told me that "I haven't seen anything" to convince her that more contraceptive use reduces abortion. She pointed to Guttmacher's 2011 findings that between 2001 and 2008, a reduction in the proportion of pregnancies ending in abortion "could represent increased difficulty in accessing abortion services."

In theory, that could contribute to the recent decline. But as the AP survey finds, there’s little correlation. Denying the more obvious contribution made by broader access to cheap, long-acting birth control requires some self-deception.

Fifty years after the Supreme Court's Griswold v. Connecticut decision created a constitutional right to use contraception, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced legislation that would allow insurance-covered birth-control pills to be sold over the counter. This, following the requirement (undermined by the Supreme Court) that health-care plans offer contraception, would do far more to reduce abortions than Graham's bill going after 1.5 percent of cases.

“I would love to see senator and presidential candidate Graham get on board,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which backs the Murray bill.

She can be sure of Bro Graham’s answer: Hell no.

Twitter: @Milbank

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