Turning the Tables in the Abortion Debate Skip to content

Turning the Tables in the Abortion Debate

6 min read

Operation Save America came to Louisville recently to attempt to force the closure of the last abortion clinic in Kentucky. The battle lines are drawn in the sand between the “prolife” and “prochoice” movements in what seems to be an intractable conflict, which has polarized American political discourse for nearly 45 years. It has infiltrated every level of electoral politics; even city and county executives in many locales in the country feel compelled to declare their allegiances to one side of this cultural divide or the other.

Ironically, progressives may be able to change the grounds of the debate in a more productive direction by using three lines of argument that have been developed and deployed by conservative advocates for more than 200 years. These lines of argument have mostly been used to resist progressive policy proposals to advance the social, political, and economic fortunes of the less privileged classes (Hirschman, 1991). These proposals typically were infused by the master narrative of progress and enlightenment. Conservatives considered that they were at a disadvantage in arguing against such proposals because “progress “ is considered by many to be intrinsically good. Hence, conservative advocates learned to attack indirectly with arguments that focused on the problematic nature of the proposed means.

The Perversity Argument

The “Perversity” argument articulates that a proposed policy is defective because it leads to making the problem worse rather than improving the situation. Conservatives have traditionally scorned government programs to help the poor as leading to more poverty and not less because it encourages dependency and sloth (Hirschman, 1991). In other words, do this and you will get even more of what you don’t want.

The perversity argument has fairly broad application to abortion issues. Some progressives have argued that failure to provide women access to family planning and contraception leads to preventable unwanted pregnancies and hence increases the number of abortions. The Mexico City Policy Executive Orders of the last 3 Republican Presidents illustrates this dynamic. The Mexico City Policy was so named after a conference at which the policy was announced in 1984 by President Reagan. It forbids the use of USAID funds for any nongovernmental organization in another country that offers abortion as one of its family planning services or provides advice or referrals to providers that offer abortion services. It is hence sometimes called the gag rule. The Mexico City rule was suspended by Clinton in 1883, reinstituted by George Bush in 2001, suspended by Obama in 2009 and most recently reimposed and expanded by President Trump in January 2017. This on and off again pattern creates a natural experiment to determine the effects of the policy.

Researcher Karen Jones (2011) looked at birth and abortion rates in Ghana during times when the Mexico City Policy was in effect. Because USAID is the biggest funder of family planning programs, the cut in funding meant those programs had to cut back their rural services. Consequently, the rural birth rate went up about 12 percent during these periods, accounting for some 700,000 additional births. She also found that abortions increased by 200,000 during the same period because of the increased number of unplanned pregnancies. The Mexico City policy, which was designed to decrease the number of abortions, had the perverse effect of actually increasing their frequency.

The Futility Argument

The “Futility” line of argument proposes that the policy being considered ignores a fundamental law of social inertia. Introduce this change and it will trigger compensatory behavior that nullifies or circumvents the policy. Conservatives have traditionally argued that programs to help the poor have typically created complex government bureaucracies to deliver the programs that suck up most of the money being appropriated. It was for this reason that Milton Friedman proposed that it was better to give poor people a guaranteed income than to try to socially engineer people out of poverty. The “futility” line of argument opines that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The futility argument can also be effectively applied to the case of greatly restricting or outlawing abortions. As long as there is a significant demand for abortion, women will find a way to obtain the service. Some research shows that before Rowe versus Wade, a great number of women traveled up to 850 miles to obtain an abortion in New York where it was legal. Joyce, Tan, & Zhang (2013) concluded that, “Our results suggest that even if some states lost all abortion providers due to legislative policies, the impact on population measures of birth and abortion rates would be small, as most women would travel to states with abortion services.” (p. 804).

Another option that is open to women is to obtain abortion-inducing drugs such as Mifepristone and Misoprostal, and to self-administer the abortion medication. Such kits are readily available from online sources for several hundred dollars, but the researchers noted that the accompanying advice from the providers was of “varying quality” (Owens & Burke, 2014). The perils of this option are illustrated in the case of Purvi Patel of Indianapolis, Indiana. Ms. Patel obtained a kit on the internet and it was delivered via mail from Hong Kong. However, she had to go to the hospital when she experienced significant bleeding because she had seriously underestimated the length of time she had been pregnant. She was convicted in 2015 of feticide for her actions and was sentenced to 20 years. However, an Indiana Appeals Court reversed the conviction in 2016 and ruled that the feticide law was not intended to apply to self-induced abortions. The overall point is the same, however: where there is high demand for a service, providers will step in in one form or another to provide it (Indianapolis Star, Sept. 2, 2016).

The Jeopardy Argument

A third line of conservative argument closely examined by Hirschman (1991) was the “Jeopardy” hypothesis. In this case, the advocate argues that while the proposed policy will remedy the problem it was designed to remedy, it will have the unfortunate effect of conflicting with a more important outcome or value. Austrian economist Friedrich Hayak, for instance, vigorously argued that the bureaucratic planning involved in creating a “Welfare State” gravely threatened individual with complex “social engineering schemes” (Hirschman, 1991). The Jeopardy argument proposes that what is gained is at the expense of something more previous and valuable.

The Jeopardy Argument can be applied to the abortion issue in the following way. Some 90 percent of all abortions occur in the first trimester. According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 20 percent of all pregnancies end in a miscarriage or natural abortion. From a practical perspective, complete enforcement of any ban on first-semester abortions would require an enforcement mechanism to detect all cases of pregnancy and detect and differentiate cases of miscarriage from induced abortion. Even if it were possible to set up such a system, most would consider such a regimen to be a grotesque intrusion into the privacy and liberty of citizens. In other words, the sacrifice of privacy and freedom would be too great a cost for even the most ardent prolife advocates.


These three lines of argument have potential to help shift the ground of the abortion debate from the dichotomies of prochoice and prolife to possibly explore policies acceptable to both camps. It is instructive that as contraceptives and family planning have become more accessible and more accepted in the United States that the actual level of abortion has also declined by some 40 percent since the 1990s. Of particular interest is that the declines in abortion rates were similar between states that enacted new restrictions on abortion and those that enacted no new restrictions between 2008 and 2011 (Jones & Jenon, 2014). Of particular interest is a program in Colorado that used private foundation funds to enable young low-income women to acquire long-acting reversible contraceptives such as the IUD. Among 15-19 year olds, the number of births was down by 29 percent and abortions declined in this age group declined by 34 percent (Ricketts, Klinger & Schwalberg, 2014).

One of the values of these three lines of argument is that they have the potential to surprise. Conservative advocates are quite adept at utilizing these arguments to oppose the plans of progressives, but they are not used to encountering them in reverse. Humans tend to engage in deeper thought and processing when they encounter the novel and the surprising. For a polarizing issue like abortion, surprise and sense-making may have some potential to open up new ground for creative engagement and dialogue.


Hirschman, Albert (1991) Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Indianapolis Star (Sept. 2, 2016). Purvi Patel Is Released After Feticide Conviction is Overturned.

Retrieved July 24 from http://www.indystar.com/story/news/crime/2016/09/01/purvi-patel-releases-feticide-conviction-overturned/89707582/

Jones, Kelly (2011). Evaluating the Mexico City Policy: How US policy affects fertility outcomes and child health in Ghana. Discussion Paper 01147, International Food Policy Research Institute.

Jones, Rachel & Jenon, Jenna (2014). Abortion incidence and service availability in the U.S. 2011. Perspectives on Sexual Reproductive Health Services. 46 (1), 3-14.

Joyce, Ted, Tan, Rudding & Zhang, Yuxiu (2013). Journal of Health Economics, 32 (5), 804-815.

Owens, L. & Burke (2014) Online availability of Mifepristone and Misoprostal. Contraception, 90 #3, 309.

Ricketts, Sue, Klinger, Greta & Schwalberg, Renee (September 2014). Game changer in Colorado: Widespread use of long-acting reversible contraceptives and rapid decline of births among young low income women. Perspectives on Sexual Reproductive Health, 46 (3). 125-132. DOI 1363/46e1714

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Greg Leichty

Dr. Greg Leichty is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Louisville, in conflict management, argumentation, and qualitative research methods. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)



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All results from Tuesday’s primary

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