In 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade. In the 39 years since, that decision has revolutionized American politics, driving culturally conservative voters out of the Democratic Party and culturally liberal voters into it. It’s responsible for a good deal of the polarization in Washington today. And yet, overturning the decision would have a surprisingly small effect on the nationwide abortion rate.
The truth is that Roe v. Wade isn’t as significant as many people make it out to be, so overturning it wouldn’t have as large an effect as many people assume. Contrary to popular belief, abortion was legal in some states before Roe — Roe just prohibits states from banning abortion. If the decision were overturned, some states would ban abortion and some wouldn’t. The catch is that the states that wouldn’t ban abortion, the more socially liberal states, are the ones with the highest abortion rates. (The 19 states that voted for John Kerry in 2004 accounted for more than two-thirds of America’s abortions in 2008 — the most recent year for which data is available — despite having less than half of America’s population.) In other words, a decision overturning Roe v. Wade wouldn’t affect the states where most abortions occur.
Mississippi, for example, would likely be one of the first states to ban abortion if Roe were overturned. But the Magnolia State already has an extremely low abortion rate — 5%, or one-quarter the national average. (The abortion rate in Ireland, where abortion is illegal, is actually slightly higher.) A ban on abortion in Mississippi wouldn’t make much of a dent in the nationwide abortion rate because — especially if the law made exceptions for rape, incest and maternal health — it wouldn’t apply to many cases. And women who really wanted abortions would be able to get legal ones in other states.
In contrast, the abortion rate in New York hovers in the low-to-mid 30s — meaning that about one-third of pregnancies in New York end in abortion. Banning abortion in New York would significantly lower the nationwide abortion rate, but the state’s overwhelmingly pro-choice lawmakers would almost certainly not pass such a ban.
As of 2008, the nationwide abortion rate stood at 19.6%, up from 16.3% in 1973. According to a recent study by Yale University’s Yuxiu Zhang and the City University of New York’s Theodore J. Joyce and Ruoding Tan, overturning Roe would cause the nationwide abortion rate to drop by, at most, 14.9%. That would bring the rate to 16.7%. Of course, for abortion opponents, this would be a significant victory. But it wouldn’t be the major victory that many anticipate. Ultimately, the only way* to dramatically lower the nationwide abortion rate is to enact a federal constitutional amendment that makes abortion illegal in most circumstances.
Peter Tucci is an editor at The Daily Caller.
* It’s possible that Congress would pass a nationwide abortion ban if Roe v. Wade were overturned, but it’s unclear whether such a ban would be upheld by the Supreme Court.