Poverty and abortion

Here’s a good discussion of the link between abortion and poverty. The number of abortions (and pregnancies) skyrocketed after Roe v. Wade, but in the last couple of decades both numbers have declined. Poverty has fluctuated between 11-15%, but at much higher frequencies. So while there’s only been one “abortion cycle”, there’s been 3-4 “poverty cycles” since the Supreme Courts landmark decision.

DarwinCatholic concludes there isn’t much of a relationship between poverty and the level of abortion:

The trend is actually very interesting. As the poverty rate was rising sharply from 1979 through 1982, the abortion rate dropped. The same thing happened during the poverty rate rises of 1990-1993 and 2001-2004. Even more interesting, however, is that during these first two downturns, although the abortion rate levelled in the first case and continued dropping in the second, the abortion ratio increased during both of those periods. What that means is that although women were not getting abortions at a higher rate during these periods, they were conceiving at a higher rate. People avoided pregnancy at a higher rate (thus decreasing the number of planned pregnancies) but did not abort at a higher rate.

If people were aborting more because of the rise in poverty, one would expect to see the actual abortion rate go up during these periods. Instead, we see that people avoided pregnancy (thus decreasing the percentage of total pregnancies which were “planned pregnancies”) but actually reduced the rate at which they aborted.

I’ve done some back of the spreadsheet (xls here) analysis to more or less confirm this conclusion. The regression of abortions on lagged abortions and 10th percentile income level suggest increasing the poor’s income by one standard deviation (about $700) reduces the number of abortions by about 34 thousand (or about 3% of the total, less than a third of the standard deviation in the number of abortions).

To explain the dynamics of abortion, he has some interesting things to say:

Why has abortion really been falling? I think it’s significant that the abortion rate is falling in such a tight correlation to the number of years since the peak. This indicates, it seems, some sort of self-correcting mechanism going on. Perhaps it’s partly a re-introduction of restrictions on abortion, both cultural and legal. Perhaps it’s partly a build-up of painful experience, which has overcome the initial impression that the costs of getting pregnant (and getting out of getting pregnant) are not as high as they were before 1973. Either way, it seems that some force that is building with time is continuing to drive the abortion rate down without any current signs of slowing.

Update: minor typos

7 thoughts on “Poverty and abortion”

  1. So, I glanced at that page and missed the part about “abortion ratio.” So I started typing something up about contraceptives and sex ed. So then I re-read that section, and reconsidered. So then I thought to myself: “Who are getting pregnant at high rates, who are from a subsection of the national population with really substantial growth since Roe v Wade, and who come from generally religious conservative cultures that disapprove of abortion?”

    So, that line of reasoning pointed me toward (please don’t think I’m a racist) these fine folks.

    (Some of my kith and kin are of this group so please don’t think I’m being racist please)

  2. Given religious people don’t generally take someone calling them religious an insult, I don’t think anyone will think you a racist for pointing out Latinos tend to be more religious.

    Your point is well taken. Part of the cultural story DarwinCath tells could be the large influx of religious and poor immigrants.

  3. Thanks for the link. I’m glad to hear my look at it stands up to at least a bit of cursory examination from an economics point of view. (My stats are all learned on the job, I’m afraid. I’m in marketing and deal with pricing/elasticity.)


    I’d be flattered to think that was it, coming (half) from a large Mexican Catholic family, but the data I’ve seen actually suggests that Hispanic women actually get abortions at rates above the national average.

  4. Hmmm…. It just occurred to me that this may have relevance for the Levitt abortion/crime hypothesis. Should we expect a resurgence of crime given the reduction in the number of abortions?

    Why hasn’t Jason stopped by to criticize my data model yet? :-)

  5. Thanks for the link. Levitt seems to be saying that because the earlier period (when abortions were increasing) was a supply shock, the decrease in price of abortion lead to lower crime rates. Future crime and today’s abortion are substitutes. Now if the current reduction in abortions is a demand shock (e.g. culture change that make abortions more unacceptable or fewer of the types that would get abortions because they were aborted), there is no link between crime and abortion.

    Thats an interesting result, if true. Dynamics really screw with the standard economic supply and demand model.

  6. Assume for a second that technological advances don’t just happen. Why this might be a realistic assumption: a company that’s thinking about bringing RU-486 to market will only do so if it thinks there will be a market for its product.

    Under this assumption, we’d expect to see more innovation in industries were costs are increasing. If something is expensive, we’d expect people would pay for a low cost alternative.

    Why, in the abortion case, would there be technological advance in this industry where the substitute for that technology (abortions) is getting cheaper?

    Here’s my guess: innovators witness the increased quantity demanded of abortions and take that as an indication of the demand for a substitute. The supply shock helps them identify the demand curve for abortions and now have more information about the potential profit in a substitute product.

    The weird thing is that this is a systematic phenomenon. Jin and Jorgensen (wp 2007) show this effect occurs in most industries. There’s more directed technological change in the industries with lower costs in the things the technology will substitute for. In other words, you see more labor saving technology improvements in industries with low wages and more capital saving technology in industries with cheap capital.

    Why would innovators systematically assume demand curves are less elastic than they really are? Why wasn’t RU-486 marketed in the 60’s?

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