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Unwelcome Results: Part 1

If there is any common area of agreement between absolutist pro-choicers and absolutist pro-lifers, it is that the issue of abortion is absolutely key to human rights.

The pro-life argument is that the right to life is absolutely fundamental and trumps all others. To allow abortion is the first or early stop on the road to losing all rights in society. After all, if a society won’t uphold the right to life, what rights will it uphold?

The pro-choice argument is that control of one’s own body is absolutely fundamental and trumps all others. If one cannot do what one wishes with the products of one’s own body, then what other rights can you have? To the pro-choice people, restrictions on a woman’s ability to have an abortion is the first and early stop on the road to everyone losing their rights in society.

A few months ago, I decided this could be a testable proposition. If the pro-lifers were right, then countries that provided abortion on demand should have a higher proportion of poor human rights records. If the pro-choicers were right, then it would be the abortion-restrictive countries that would have a higher proportion of poor human rights records.

My own personal hypothesis was that neither side was right. As a frequent user of the US State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, I was aware of both abortion on demand and abortion banning countries with gruesome human rights records. So I believed that the two extremes of abortion policy would yield similar proportions of poor human rights records.

To do this experiment, I needed a set of human rights reports and a list of countries grouped by abortion policy. While there are places where you can look up the abortion policies of individual countries, the latest list by level of abortion restriction was “Sharing Responsibility: Women, Society and Abortion Worldwide (Alan Guttmacher Institute, (1999) at http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/sharing.pdf. This report gave abortion policies as of 1997. So for this work I used the the 1997 State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices which are available at http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/1997_hrp_report/97hrp_report_toc.html.

The Guttmacher report grouped countries’ abortion policies into the following groups:

  1. To save the woman’s life (includes countries that ban abortion all together)
  2. Abortion for life or protect physical health
  3. Abortion for 1&2 or protect mental health
  4. Abortion for 1-3 or socioeconomic groups
  5. Abortion without restriction as to reason. (i.e. Abortion on Demand)

Because I was looking for the sharpest differences, I focused on “abortion only for life of mother” AND “abortion on demand.” I found 53 countries in the first group and 47 countries in the second group.

Next, I classified each country’s human rights record as good, fair or poor. Here’s the method I used:

  • Poor – State dept used that word OR several gruesome incidents were recorded in report OR report cited ongoing severe problems.
  • Fair – State dept cited signs of progress but that significant problems remained.
  • Good – State dept stated country generally respected human rights and did not cite serious ongoing problems.

Lastly, I compiled my results into a Google Spreadsheet that you can find at http://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=rN6qdkHEsZTPBesFGqOtMIw&output=html. The spreadsheet lists the individual country findings plus my summary which was:

Abortion on Demand – 47 countries

Rights Record * Number * Percent
Good * 14 * 29.79%
Fair * 18 * 38.30%
Poor * 15 * 31.91%

Save Life of Mother – 53 countries

Rights Record * Number * Percent
Good * 3 * 5.66%
Fair * 17 * 32.08%
Poor * 33 * 62.26%


As you can see above, based on my measurements, nearly 2/3 of countries that essentially banned abortion in 1997 had poor human rights records. By contrast, less than 1/3 of countries that provided abortion on demand had poor human rights records. This was not a result I expected or desired, but it is the one I got. I thought about not publishing these findings, but I think it is better to share unpleasant facts (at least to me) than to hide them.

This post is called “Unwelcome Results: Part I.” That’s because next week I will – 1) summarize and respond to any feedback to this first part and 2) offer a few thoughts on the implications of these results for the pro-life movement.

For feedback, I’d welcome just about anything beside obvious spam and hatemail, but I’m really interested in comments in the following areas:

1) Is there a more recent grouping of countries by their abortion policies? If there is, I can re-run the experiment and see what, if anything has changed since 1997.

2) Look over the individual country rights-record determinations and let me know if you think a country’s designation should be changed. Include WHY you think the country deserves a higher or lower rating.

3) Your reactions either to my overall findings or to individual country’s abortion policies or human rights records. Especially on why the correlation is the way that it is.

If any pro-lifer out there wants me to declare all abortion-on-demand countries to have poor human rights records because they don’t respect the right to lfie, consider this — Even if I did so, we’d still be left with the result that 2/3 of countries that ban abortion have pretty bad human rights records. Eliminating abortion still would not be the royal road to improving human rights records.



3 Responses

  1. My spouse had an interesting suggestion that I might try in the future. She noted that the State Department had subclasses of rights:

    — Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:
    – Respect For Civil Liberties (includes Freedom of Religion”
    – Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government
    – Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status
    – Worker Rights

    She thought it might be interested to cross check abortion restrictions with other aspects of “Integrity of the Person” and “Civil Liberties”

    This will be harder to set up than the overall characterization of human rights, but does narrow the focus to what I consider to be the core question — “Does legal protection for the life in the womb carry over to legal protection to people once they’ve been born”? The current study suggests no.


    The other thought I had was to work from a list of current abortion rates by country and run them through the human rights reports. If the pro-life hypothesis is correct then countries with higher abortion rates should have worse human rights records because life is not held in high esteem in those countries.

    This might not work too well though as abortion rates have a lot of caveats to them as I’ve indicated in an earlier post.

    But it could still be interesting to try.

  2. Abortion figures aren’t very accurate, particularly for “save the life of the mother,” since that is purely subjective depending on the doctor being paid.

    I fail to see what you are trying to prove. We have freedom of choice even when the fetus could live, but have 50 million abortions give or take a few million. So this means. . . what?

    The women’s movement admits it lied big time about deaths from homemade abortions to get the legislation passed. And from the other side, we never know how many spontaneous abortions there would be in the very large figure cited by pro-lifers which would reduce the carnage figure. Either way, abortion is indefensible no matter what your politics.

  3. The point of the post and of subsequent efforts, is to determine the relationship, if any, between respect for life and respect for other human rights. So far the evidence doesn’t seem promising. If banning abortion automatically promoted a Culture of Life, then we should see a correlation between countries that ban abortion and those countries that generally respect other human rights. This does not appear to be the case in the current study. The next step is to see whether countries where abortion is rarely practiced are also home to regimes which respect other human rights.

    Ultimately, the goal is to create a genuine Culture of Life where not only is the right to life protected, but all other human rights are as well.

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