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Sonogram obscures real progress on abortion

2/9/2014

"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."

"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."

Kansas state 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 during a recent meeting of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare. The drama occurred during the annual Kansas Right to Life march, 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, they need to replace show-stopping stunts with hard data. It is not as exciting, but much more effective.

Last week's report from the Guttmacher Institute (tinyurl.com/plk68q2) 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 the 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 a 17-percent drop. At first, pro-life Kansans might want to celebrate this state's meteoric, 35-percent drop. However, there is a devil in the details. 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 advocates: Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson, Attorney General Steven Six, and a moderate Republican plurality in the state Senate. What gives?

Put simply, Guttmacher researchers found 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, popular with women younger than 25 years old, are less error-prone than other methods. Few would advocate tanking the economy in the name of reducing abortions, but the availability and education about long-term contraception offers 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 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 they helped 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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