Slate Oversimplifies and Obscures U.S. Abortion Law Radicalism

Nora Sullivan, M.P.A  

In an article published November 6 in Slate, columnist Joshua Keating asks the question, “How do America’s abortion laws compare to the rest of the world’s?” In light of the recent mid-term elections which saw an increase of pro-life legislators elected to Congress and the state houses, Keating’s look at international abortion limitations is timely.  He relies on information from a new report released by the Center for Reproductive Rights, which favors legal abortion.


The Center for Reproductive Rights divide the various nations according to level of restriction from completely banned/only allowed to save the life of the mother all the way to countries “without restriction due to reason.”  Countries included in the former category include Ireland, Mexico, and a number of mostly developing nations.  Countries in the latter category include the majority of industrialized and post-Soviet nations.  It is in this category that the United States is classified.


The problem with this manner of classification is that it does not accurately answer the question of how America’s abortion laws truly compare to the rest of the world’s.  This classification makes it appear that the United States’ policies are in step with the rest of the industrialized elites.  However, this is misleading.


As made clear in a recent report from the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI), the United States is far more permissive in terms of legal abortion than almost all other countries of the world.  The accurate answer to Keating’s initial question would be that America stands far outside the international mainstream in permitting late-term abortions, essentially to the time of birth.


The United States is one of only seven countries in the world that permits elective abortion beyond 20 weeks, which is more than halfway through pregnancy and the time (and perhaps earlier) at which research shows that the baby is capable of feeling pain.  The only other countries that stand in the same category include China, North Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, the Netherlands, and Canada.


The CLI review of international abortion statutes shows that most of the countries that the Center for Reproductive Rights lumps together with the U.S. actually place more limitations regarding abortion based on duration of pregnancy.  The norm among countries that allow elective abortion is to limit it at 20 weeks gestation, though elective abortion is more often limited to the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, that is, the first trimester.


It is misleading to classify the United States with these other nations’ far more limited abortion policies.  The U.S. is more accurately categorized as an outlier with ultra-permissive abortion policies.  The CRR report laments the limited restriction currently placed on abortion in the States but fails to note that even should the U.S. move closer to the international mainstream and adopt a 20-week abortion policy, it would still be among the top 4% in regard to permissive abortion laws.


In the last year polling from Quinnipiac, National Journal, Huffington Post, NBC/Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post/ABC all found that a majority of Americans support limiting abortion at 20 weeks’ gestation.  Additionally a higher percentage of women than men support such limitations.


If the United States really wants to keep in step with other industrialized nations, then the way forward is clear: move away from the extreme fringe in terms of abortion policy and begin to embrace norms that reflect a higher degree of respect for human life at every stage of development.


Nora Sullivan is a research assistant for the Charlotte Lozier Institute.


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