Terror Attacks on Abortion Clinics Do Little to Reduce Abortion Rates

The most common form of domestic terrorism in the U.S. is violent attacks on abortion clinics. Between 1973 and 2003, over 300 abortion providers were the target of acts of extreme violence by anti-abortion groups. A new paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) last week asks the question: Are these attacks effective at reducing abortion rates in the areas in which they target?


The authors find that while in the short-run there is a small increase in local fertility (1%), in the longer run women simply travel to other areas in order to have abortions. If this is, in fact, the case, then the overall the effect on abortion rates is negligible, suggesting that this particular form of terrorism is largely ineffective.

The rate of abortions in the U.S. has been falling over time. The most recent estimate finds that there is one abortion for every four live births. This implies that in 2007 there were roughly 863,000 abortions in the U.S., almost half the number of abortions performed during the peak period in the mid-1980’s. Anti-abortion crusaders might be tempted to argue that more women have been convinced to complete their pregnancies, but this assertion would be contradicted by the fact that the birth rate for unmarried women has not changed over time and, in fact, the birth rate for teen mothers had fallen significantly. In the absence of any evidence that fertility rates have increased, it seems that the reduction in the number of abortions is more a function of a reduction in pregnancy rates than a change in willingness to abort.

The authors of this new research combine county-level violence data with data on abortion providers, abortions, and births. They find that following a violent attack on an abortion provider, the availability of abortions in the targeted country fell by 6% to 9% and that local abortion rates decline by 8% to 9%. In areas in which the form of the attack was murder, the effect was larger—nearly 10 times as large as the average effect.

The fact that the number of abortion providers, and abortions, in a specific county declined following an attack, however, does not prove that any women were discouraged from having an abortion. It's possible that women simply traveled to a nearby county for the same service. One way to determine if this is what happened is to test if local fertility rates increased following the attack, which is what you would expect if the abortion rate had fallen. The authors find a small increase in fertility about 7 to 11 months following the attack—which implies an approximately five month effect. But in the longer run there is no evidence that fertility increased. 

There is another explanation as to why fertility did not increase despite the fall in local abortions, other that the reason proposed by this new paper: In response to the reduction in the availability of abortions, women might have taken more precautions to prevent pregnancies. Other studies have found that that when the cost of an abortion increases, because for example women have to travel longer distances or because teenagers have to gain consent from their parents, STI rates tended to fall, suggesting that more couples were either using condoms or abstaining from sex all together. ** If this is the case, and women are preventing pregnancies from happening in the first place, then really by finding that fertility rates have not changed in the long-run the authors haven’t necessarily provided proof that abortion rates are unchanged.

In reality, probably both factors are at play—conception rates are falling because abortion is more costly and more women are traveling to have an abortion in a nearby city. This study finds that approximately 65% of the fall in local abortion can be accounted for by an increase in abortion rates in cities within fifty miles of the targeted abortion clinic. By my estimate that leaves a possible 35% that could be explained by a fall in conceptions, and abortions.

*Jacobson, Mireille and Heather Royer (2010). “Aftershocks: The Impact of Clinic Violence on Abortion Services.”  NBER Working Paper 16603.

** Klick, Jonathan and Thomas Stratmann (2008). “Abortion Access and Risky Sex Among Teens: Parental Involvement Laws and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.” Journal of Law, Economics and Organization, Vol. 24(1): p. 2. 

Image courtesy of Flickr user Naveg.

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Originally Poe envisioned a parrot, not a raven

Quoth the parrot — "Nevermore."

The Green Parrot by Vincent van Gogh, 1886
Culture & Religion

By his mid-30s, Edgar Allan Poe was not only weary by the hardships of poverty, but also regularly intoxicated — by more than just macabre visions. Despite this, the Gothic writer lucidly insisted that there was still a method to his madness when it came to devising poems.

In an essay titled "The Philosophy of Composition," published in 1846 in Graham's Magazine, Poe divulged how his creative process worked, particularly in regard to his most famous poem: "No one point in [The Raven's] composition is rerferrible either to accident or intuition… the work proceeded step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem."

That said, contrary to the popular idea that Edgar Allan Poe penned his poems in single bursts of inspiration, The Raven did not pour out from his quivering quill in one fell swoop. Rather it came about through a calculative process — one that included making some pretty notable changes, even to its avian subject.

As an example of how his mind worked, Poe describes in his essay that originally the bird that flew across the dreary scene immortalized in the poem was actually… a parrot.

Poe had pondered ways he could have his one word refrain, "nevermore," continuously repeated throughout the poem. With that aim, he instantly thought of a parrot because it was a creature capable of uttering words. However, as quickly as Poe had found his feathered literary device, he became concerned with the bird's form on top of its important function.

And as it turns out, the parrot, a pretty resplendent bird, did not perch so well in Poe's mind because it didn't fit the mood he was going for—melancholy, "the most legitimate of all the poetical tones." In solving this dilemma in terms of imagery, he made adjustments to its plumage, altogether transforming the parrot — bestowing it with a black raiment.

"Very naturally, a parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself, but was superseded forthwith by a Raven, as equally capable of speech, and infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone," Poe explained in his piece in Graham's. "I had now gone so far as the conception of a Raven — the bird of ill omen — monotonously repeating the one word, 'Nevermore,' at the conclusion of each stanza, in a poem of melancholy tone…"

It was with these aesthetic calculations that Poe ousted the colorful bird that first flew into his mind, and welcomed the darker one that fluttered in:

In there stepped a stately Raven of the saintly days of yore;
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore…

The details of the poem — including the bird's appearance — needed to all blend together, like a recipe, to bring out the somber concept he was trying to convey: the descent into madness of a bereaved lover, a man lamenting the loss of a beautiful woman named Lenore. With that in mind, quoth the parrot — "nevermore" just doesn't have the same grave effect.

* * *

If you'd like to read more about Edgar Allan Poe, click here to review how his contemporaries tried to defame him in an attempt to thwart his success.

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