An economist’s approach to the pro choice / pro life debate


I think this debate is more interesting than most people realize. I’ll start by stating that I understand that not all “Pro Choice Advocates” agree with each other and the same goes for “Pro Life Advocates”.

Let me first describe what I understand to be the main points of each camp:

Pro Choice:

Support the legalization of trained professionals to perform abortions regardless of the cause of the pregnancy

Support the use of contraceptives, including condoms and birth control pills


Pro Life:

Support outlawing abortion

Strongly discourage the use of contraceptives


What DOES NOT lower abortion rates:

Looking a countries across the world, the data show that there is not a positive correlation between abortion being legal and the number of abortions. The data also show that there is a positive correlation between countries that have outlawed abortion and the number of abortions performed under unsafe conditions (by poorly trained providers or with clothes hangers and the like). The data is clearly outlined here. While it is possible that the type of country / society that would create a law that decides for a woman whether or not she can have an abortion may in some way be correlated to the type of country / society that would be more likely to have unplanned pregnancies, the point is that the data do not suggest that the outlawing abortion will cause abortion rates to fall. (I know that sentence was a little confusing. Feel free to read a second time)

What DOES lower abortion rates:

The following quote comes from The Guttmacher Institute, an organization that “performs research, policy analysis, and public education to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights”:

“Both the lowest and highest subregional abortion rates are in Europe, where abortion is generally legal under broad grounds. In Western Europe, the rate is 12 per 1,000 women, while in Eastern Europe it is 43. [1] The discrepancy in rates between the two regions reflects relatively low contraceptive use in Eastern Europe, as well as a high degree of reliance on methods with relatively high user failure rates, such as the condom, withdrawal and the rhythm method.”

(I’m not familiar with “the rhythm method” – you’re guess is as good as mine.)

In summation, the data show that areas with low and ineffective contraceptive use typically have higher abortion rates.


(As I continue, let me remind you again that I understand that there are varying opinions within the Pro-Life camp, but that I am confident that the views I am explaining are commonly held and used amongst the Pro-Life activists in attempts to change and implement laws)

Pro Life advocates argue that birth control pills don’t simply “prevent” birth but “kill” “babies” after they begin to form. Therefor, birth control pills “kill” “babes” in a way as morally unacceptable as abortion.

Let me explain the biology:

On a monthly basis, a woman will send an egg down into the Fallopian tubes (known as ovulation). If sperm are waiting then the egg becomes fertilized. This fertilized egg now has unique DNA. It’s also referred to as a zygote and is considered by Pro-Life advocates to be when life or personhood begins. This zygote then heads down the Fallopian tubes until it reaches and implants itself into the wall of the uterus. This is when pregnancy begins. The purpose of a birth control pill is to prevent ovulation in the first place and prevent sperm from reaching the Fallopian tubes. Pro Life advocates argue that “breakthrough ovulation” occurs from time to time. Breakthrough ovulation is when, while on the pill, the sperm makes it to the egg and it becomes fertilized, forming a zygote, but the pill causes the uterine wall to become too thin for the zygote to implant so the zygote gets flushed out the vagina.

Let’s suppose for a moment that we agree that life or personhood begins with the zygote; that the life of a zygote should be valued equally to the life of you or me. If we accept this as true, then birth control pills do kill people / zygotes. But wait, a woman’s body will naturally reject 18% of fertilized eggs. Let’s do some math:

Without Birth Control:

If 100 fertile women have intercourse without birth control, 33 of those women’s eggs are likely to get fertilized. Out of those 33 about 18% or 6 are likely to get rejected by the uterus.

WITHOUT Birth Control: 6 DEATHS

With Birth Control:

If 100 fertile women have intercourse with birth control, about 6 will ovulate anyway and about 2 will become fertilized. Out of those 2, 100% will be rejected by the uterus.

WITH Birth Control: 2 DEATHS

I’ll end with a great quote by Jonathan Dudley, author of Broken Words:

“Due to hormone imbalances, genetic anomalies, and a number of unknown factors, between 50 percent and 75 percent of embryos fail to implant in the uterus and are passed with the monthly menstrual flow. If we agree with pro-life advocates that every embryo is as morally valuable as an adult human, this means that more than half of humans immediately die. This fact provides pro-life advocates with an opportunity to follow through on their convictions. Surely, a moral response to a pandemic of this magnitude would be to rally the scientific community to devote the vast majority of its efforts to better understanding why this happens and trying to stop it. Yet the same pro-life leaders who declare that every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child have done nothing to advocate such research. … Even if medicine could save only 10 percent of these embryos — and we don’t know because no one has cared enough to ask — it would be saving more lives than curing HIV, diabetes, and malaria combined. One could say that this massive loss of human life is natural, and therefore, humans are under no obligation to end it. But it is not clear why the same argument could not be used to justify complacency in the face of AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and other natural causes of human death.”

Abortion is a symptom of the real problem: Unwanted pregnancies. Once you sort through the Pro-Life rhetoric, you find that Pro-Choice policies are far more likely to result in less unwanted pregnancies.

I am “Pro-Choice”.

Basically the entirety of my post was inspired by this article.


2 thoughts on “An economist’s approach to the pro choice / pro life debate

  1. I’ve had this debate with pro lifers. My argument – if they really, honestly cared about the ‘holocaust’ of dead babies, they’d look at what brings down rates of unwanted pregnancies and give that a go. e.g. robust sex education, access to contraception and medical privacy for all, including teenagers. Even if they had to hold their noses to do it. I liken it to other harm minimisation programs, e.g. the handing out of condoms and needles in prisons. Prisoners are not supposed to be doing sex and drugs and the supply of equipment helps them break the law. But NOT supplying it leads to high rates of AIDS, which is the worse outcome.

    But no, the pro lifers (or the American ones, anyway) can’t countenance the abortion fight without the abstinence one as well. So their real agenda, as far as I’m concerned, is controlling sexuality, not bringing down the rates of abortion.

  2. pennerosity, this is some great analysis!

    There is something about seeing past rhetoric and actually sitting down and analyzing the facts.. Most people don’t bother.

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