Today in Actually Useful News: Universal Health Care and Lower Abortion Rates

The past week of news in abortion and health-care reform has been, frankly, pretty useless. The narrative changed every day—there was a compromise, then there wasn't. Leaders were working out a deal with Stupak, now they're not. Even after religiously reading the "Stupak" Google Alert I receive every day, I still have no idea what abortion language will appear in the final bill. It depends on too many unknowns: how many representatives plan to vote with Stupak (estimates have ranged from 3 to 20), how many other representatives are bowing out and how much supporters of abortion rights are willing to budge.

So if you find yourself craving some actually-useful analysis of abortion's role in health-care reform, I would recommend T.R. Reid's counterintuitive explanation of why increased access to health care, including abortion services, correlates with reduced abortion rates.

Right now, the United States has the highest abortion rate in the developed world, 20.8 per 1,000 women age 15 to 44. That's higher than Canada, Germany, Japan, or Britain. Our teen pregnancy rate is also notably higher. No one could argue that these countries have "more respect for life or deeper religious convictions than Americans do," Reid contends in today's Washington Post. "So why do they have fewer abortions?" His answer:

The connection was explained to me by a wise and holy man, Cardinal Basil Hume. He was the senior Roman Catholic prelate of England and Wales when I lived in London; as a reporter and a Catholic, I got to know him.

In Britain, only 8 percent of the population is Catholic (compared with 25 percent in the United States). Abortion there is legal. Abortion is free. And yet British women have fewer abortions than Americans do. I asked Cardinal Hume why that is.

The cardinal said there were several reasons but that one important explanation was Britain's universal health-care system. "If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it's needed," Hume explained, "she's more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn't it obvious?"

An interesting point to consider and one that I find pretty valid. I should, however, point out that here in the United States, the relationship between abortion access and rates is far from obvious. Numerous studies have found higher abortion rates in states that allow Medicaid funding for the procedure. One study of Pennsylvania's abortion rates among Medicaid recipients, for example, shows a decrease in the state's abortion rate among Medicaid recipients after the state ended funding in 1985 (to be fair though, a trend toward decreased abortion rates looks like it had started five years prior to the law change).

But on the other hand, there's a significant body of research suggesting that greater socioeconomic supports (a cornerstone of health-care reform) reduce abortion rates. We know there's a relationship between poverty and abortion: the abortion rate of women who live below the poverty line is four times higher than those living 300 percent above it. So it makes sense that greater economic assistance can have an influence: a 2008 report from Catholics in Alliance, a liberal group, found that "an increase in economic assistance to low-income families is correlated with a 20 percent lower abortion rate in the 1990s."

From both sides, I think Reid's point is an interesting one to consider—and a whole lot more useful than another round of Stupak speculation.