Post-Roe Stats: the Natural Experiment

Posted on July 19, 2022 By

by Rachel MacNair

In a post-Roe world, predictions (hypotheses) can be made to test claims of differing perspectives. What’s coming is a huge “natural experiment.”

A natural experiment, unlike a lab experiment, wasn’t arranged in advance. An 1854 London cholera outbreak had differing patterns of water sources – cholera could be caused by contaminated water. Another example is the random lottery for the military draft for American men sent to Vietnam; those selected were an intervention group. The rest were a comparison group.’

Of course, for an experimenter to randomly assign some men to kill others and other men not to would be grotesquely unethical, as would deliberately giving randomly picked people contaminated water and others not. For post-Roe, having some states ban abortion and others not would be astonishingly unethical as an experimental design. But as something that’s foreseeably going to happen, it’s entirely ethical to collect the data.

Researchers have already used this method to ascertain that the Hyde Amendment led to a substantially lower abortion rate in those states that observe it compared with those states that use state funds to fund abortions.


Question 1: Will Women Die?


This is the back-alley butcher claim. When Roe was announced in 1973 when I was 14, my first thought was this was a good thing. It would put back-alley butchers out of business.

I soon found otherwise.

In 1968, a woman died from an abortion performed by Richard Mucie; I’ll spare you gruesome details. The jury gave him the maximum sentence for manslaughter. He got out on parole, but lost his medical license and set up an antique shop.

Then, because of Roe, Mucie went back to court and got his license back. He set up shop on Main Street – a Main Street address I picketed – and got an ad in the Yellow Pages. But his medical skills were such that family planning clinics didn’t refer patients to him. He stopped when he died of an old-age-related illness.

This is just one I know in my own city (Kansas City, Missouri). Various mainstream news media reports of scandalous abortion facilities have been published throughout the decades. See here for a consolidated list of documented problems at Planned Parenthood alone, including deaths, malpractice suits, health code violations, and ambulance calls. Americans United for Life offers an extensive report.

So, will women die from abortion? Yes. Individuals have died during all this time. But be clear:

Women’s deaths from abortion will mostly if not entirely happen from legal abortions.

This is because:

  • The states that keep abortion legal are more populous than the states likely to ban it.
  • The states that keep it legal have far higher abortion rates than those that ban it. The rate is the number of abortions per 1,000 women of child-bearing age. So a larger portion of the larger population of women in abortion-promoting states have abortions.
  • A large portion of the women in states that ban abortions who nevertheless get abortions will do so by traveling to states where it’s legal.

Meanwhile, the very fact of a legal ban is likely to lower abortion numbers as people become more careful about getting pregnant (numbers of vasectomies have already shot up) and those who get pregnant are less likely to be pressured, or will resolve any ambivalence in favor of not doing it.

The pool of women getting legal abortions will dwarf the pool of women who figure out a way to do illegal abortions. Therefore, it’s a statistical matter that more of them will be available to be subjected to the kinds of problems that come with hard-hearted assembly lines.

We can be sure if there ever is a death from an illegal abortion, it will get major media coverage. Here, absence of evidence is evidence of absence. The major abortion restrictions started in Texas in September 2021 probably haven’t led to any women’s deaths as of this writing, or it would have been trumpeted all over.

In the far more likely event that a woman dies from a legal abortion, it will probably remain as unmentioned by the media as has become customary throughout these decades.


Question 2: Maternal Mortality


Two countries instituted legal bans after having abortion freely available: Poland and Nicaragua. For both, maternal mortality went down.

Other dramatic things going on at the time may help account for this. But at least the argument that banning abortions would mean more women die doesn’t find support here.

Mexico had a natural experiment as abortion was legalized in some of its 32 states but not others. Over ten years, one study found states with less permissive laws had lower maternal mortality than states with more permissive laws.

However, there were independent associations with female literacy, skilled attendance at birth, low birth weight, clean water, sanitation, and intimate partner violence. These statistically accounted for a lot.

The question of why less permissive abortion laws were associated with these other measures of benefit was beyond the scope of the study.

Will states that ban abortion have an uptick in maternal mortality over the long term, as predicted by abortion-legalization advocates? Will they instead have a lower rate, as predicted by those who think greater sensitivity to the lives of children will also translate into greater sensitivity for mothers? Will there be no impact?

We’re about to find out.


Question 3: Poverty


In the Dobbs case, there was an amicus brief from economistsclaiming their statistical methods showed women’s economic benefits from abortion were substantial. One major problem is their measures were from the early 1970s. Many married women couldn’t get credit cards in their own names until 1974. Economic conditions and attitudes about women’s roles have changed substantially.

Also, rather than killing children to elevate women’s positions, it would make sense to make conditions change all the more substantially – better childcare availability, paid parental leave, programs that alleviate poverty, etc.

These economists also disregard a glaring statistic: the feminization of poverty shot up after Roe. There’s a logic to that: men were more self-righteous about abandoning their own children and their children’s mothers. Unwed births and single motherhood went up. Any impacts of post-abortion trauma would also lead to more poverty.

So the question is: Will poverty go up in states that ban abortion, as women are impoverished by unaborted children? Or will poverty go down, reversing the trend that abortion availability set? Or might it go down because legislators who ban abortion realize they do need to provide more substantial anti-poverty supports?


Question 4: Child Abuse


I cover this in more detail in Chapter 13 of Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion, summarized in this post.

One theory is that unwanted and therefore resented children are more likely to be abused. Another theory is that abortion removes a taboo on hurting children, and because it allows violence to children prenatally, violence will then be greater to postnatal children as well.

The current situation favors the second theory, in that child abuse rates shot up after Roe.

That doesn’t settle the question; there are plenty of alternative explanations. But whether child abuse rates go up or down in those states that ban abortion compared to those states that don’t will be quite helpful for getting an empirical answer.

More specifically: will the rate of sexual abuse of children go down, as the abortion facility is no longer handy to cover up the crime?

We already have a case to illustrate: while there’s been a uproar over the case of the ten-year-old child impregnated through rape who traveled from Ohio to Indiana to get an abortion, the fact is that the rapist was caught. If the judicial system works, he won’t be able to victimize more girls. In contrast to cases where the rapist took the victim to the nearby abortion facility, the cover-up wasn’t so easy. Perhaps the publicity may help communicate to other potential abusers that cover-ups aren’t quite as easy any more.


Question 5: Violent Crime


What will happen to the crime rate in those states that change their abortion status by restricting it?

One theory popularized by Freakonomics is that the drop in crime a couple of decades after Roe was due to all the kids who would have been committing crimes as teenagers and young adults being aborted instead.

I would note, however, that the crime drop was accompanied in the same time period by a substantial drop in abortions. Maybe whatever was causing a lowering of violence in one area was causing a lowering of violence in the other; which direction, or a feedback loop going both ways, would take way more study.

But the abortion-as-violence understanding would expect the crime rate, especially violent crimes, to go down in those states that ban abortion, while not going down it states that retain widespread abortion practice. Abortion would no longer be serving as a role model on how to solve problems.




I think we can count on it that researchers will take advantage of new circumstances to gather data on what the impact of abortion really is. Consistent-lifers have argued that violence is deceptive as a problem-solver across all the issues – war, death penalty, and euthanasia, as well as abortion.

We have a clear-cut natural experiment coming, with clear predictions depending on whether abortion is seen as a needed option or instead as horrific violence. We should be able to get a firmer grasp on which of the two perspectives better fit abortion by looking at future data.


For more from Rachel MacNair on consistent-life stats, see:

Almost No One? How Survey Polls Work

Does Socially-Approved Killing Increase Criminal Homicide?

Suicide Prevention and Other Kinds of Killing

Why the Hyde Amendment Helps Low-Income Women

Excerpt – Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion: Wars Cause Abortion

Excerpt – Peace Psychology Perspectives on Abortion: Child Abuse

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