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Commentary Highlights Evidence Suggesting That Attacks on Abortion Clinics Do Not Discourage Abortions

Commentary Highlights Evidence Suggesting That Attacks on Abortion Clinics Do Not Discourage Abortions

December 4, 2015 — Citing a recent increase in threats against reproductive health care facilities, Olga Khazan in an opinion piece for The Atlantic writes that while "[a]ttacks on abortion clinics are ghastly and take a harsh toll on the communities where they occur," evidence suggests that they do not "discourage abortion."

Khazan writes that "[t]here's been an uptick in threats against reproductive health-care facilities since this summer," when the antiabortion-rights group Center for Medical Progress released a series of misleading videos targeting Planned Parenthood's fetal tissue donation program. She cites an FBI September Intelligence Assessment that noted, "'It is likely criminal or suspicious incidents will continue to be directed against reproductive health-care providers, their staff, and facilities.'"

"Last week, that nightmare came true," Khazan continues, referring to the deadly shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. Discussing the effect of such violence, Khazan points to a study from economists Mireille Jacobson and Heather Royer that found that attacks against abortion clinics had a "modest" effect on the "demand for or supply of abortions."

Khazan writes that Jacobson and Royer's research showed that the number of providers in an area typically fell by about 6% to 9% following an attack, while the number of abortions dropped by 8% to 9%. "The impact was felt more severely outside of hospitals: Clinic-based abortions and providers dropped by 10 to 14 percent," she writes. According to Khazan, "the effect was even more pronounced" in cases of murder, when "[b]oth abortions and providers decreased ten-fold, and they stayed at that level for years."

However, "there was a twist in [the] data," Khazan continues, noting that the drop in the number of abortions was not "matched by a comparable rise in births." In the areas targeted by attacks, births increased by about 1%, "far less than the amount abortions decreased," Khazan writes. Meanwhile, the rate of abortion in neighboring counties increased, she notes, indicating that "women simply went elsewhere for their services."

She quotes the researchers, who concluded, "'These findings indicate that the primary effect of anti-abortion violence is a change in the location of abortions.'" According to Khazan, "the abortion-seeking women saw few options other than to face their fears and get the procedure done anyway."

Khazan writes that the findings do not "mean that intimidation by anti-abortion groups can't rattle patients and alter the course of their decisions." For example, a study in 2000 found that "more mundane, yet non-lethal anti-abortion activities -- things like picketing, vandalism, and physically blocking patients -- have a big effect on the abortion rate." Such activities have reduced the number of abortions by about 20% and have driven up the price of abortion care, Khazan notes. She cites research showing that 84% "of abortion providers said they had experienced harassment" and 16% of women who faced picketers were "'extremely' upset by them."

Further, she notes that "eliminating facilities altogether, when there are no proximate alternatives, can have an equally dramatic impact," pointing to a Texas law (HB 2) "that shuttered roughly half of the state's abortion clinics." Khazan writes, "Wide-scale harassment and steep obstacles, especially across an entire region or state, can coerce abortion-seeking patients into giving up. Or at least, the hurdles can make the procedure so inconvenient as to be practically impossible."

However, antiabortion-rights terrorism "doesn't pay," Khazan concludes, writing, "Deadly attacks on isolated clinics don't scare away abortion patients if they are truly determined to get the procedure." Such violence is often called "'senseless,'" Khazan says, noting, "It doesn't even serve the deranged goals of the attacker" (Khazan, The Atlantic, 12/2).