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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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.