Economics has long been labeled “the dismal science,” but sociology is often a close second. Having deep knowledge about how society works allows us to accurately predict the unintended consequences of many acts, and often those consequences aren’t pleasant. For example, when CBS News broke the story of rape, torture, and murder at the hands of US soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in April 2004, sociologists shook their heads knowing that the infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment had already told us what would happen under similar conditions.
In June of this year, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, and policy scholars predict that 26 states will now ban abortion. At the time of this writing, 13 states have already passed new, severely restrictive abortion policies, and more are sure to come. For sociologists, this is just the beginning.
While many Americans celebrated the Supreme Court ruling, seeing it as a hard-fought end to abortion in the United States, sociologists are deeply skeptical that the ruling truly signals an end to abortion. While abortion is likely to decline in the very short run, evidence from years of sociological studies shows that abortion rates are quite high in many countries, regardless of the legality of abortion. A recent report by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Human Reproduction Programme shows that as many as 68% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion in countries where all forms of abortion are completely illegal. Furthermore, when India and China are removed from international data (because these two countries account for about 3 billion of the world’s 7.8 billion population), countries where abortions are illegal to have higher abortion rates than countries with more permissive laws. In fact, about half of all abortions worldwide occur in the countries with the most restrictive abortion laws.
A feature common across all nations where abortion is illegal is the presence of unsafe abortions. Globally, more than 25 million abortions are performed yearly by someone who lacks the skills to perform the procedure and/or in an environment that does not meet minimal medical standards. Unsafe abortions are the third leading cause of death worldwide for women of childbearing age. These trends suggest that restricting abortion in the United States will not end abortion, but it will likely increase maternal death. Researchers at the University of Colorado estimate that statewide abortion bans will result in a proliferation of unsafe abortions coupled with the inability to terminate pregnancies with multiple complications. They estimate the impact to be a 24 percent increase in maternal deaths, with the most devastating effects experienced by Black women. Indeed, even before the overturn of Roe, states with the most abortion restrictions had a 7 percent higher rate of maternal mortality than states with fewer restrictions, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health.
The study of the predictors and consequences of fertility, fertility intentions, contraceptive demand, and abortion at both the national- and individual levels has long been an important sociological area of inquiry. Fertility scholars who I know are scrambling to capture this important moment; most are facing the future with pessimism. Still, they are quick to point out that the overturn of Roe is happening after forty years of decline in US abortion rates. The 2016 US abortion rate is less than half the 1980 level. This is largely attributable to advances in contraception, greater access, and better use, and these trends are likely to continue. In the United States, it is also unlikely that all states will ban abortion. Abortion was legal in several US states prior to the Roe v. Wade decision, and it is likely to remain so. Nonetheless, we still expect a recent and marked increase in maternal death in the next few years, and if our predictions are borne out, it will be a cold comfort.
Professor and Head