According to the following article, the oft quoted result that abortion is higher in countries where it is legal is misleading:

The obvious problem with The Lancet study is that many of the countries where abortion is illegal are located in Africa or Latin America. These countries have much higher poverty rates and a higher incidence of other social pathologies which may increase the perceived need for abortion. Douthat shrewdly points out that to properly analyze variations in abortion policy, similar regions have to be compared. For instance, in the United States red states, which tend to have more pro-life laws, have lower abortion rates than blue states. Additionally, Catholic and Catholic-influenced countries like France, Italy, Spain, and Germany tend to have somewhat more restrictions on abortion and somewhat lower abortion rates than Scandinavian nations.

Does banning abortions decrease the number of abortions?

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    A quick commentary. The quoted passage confuses correlation and causation.
    – Sklivvz
    Nov 3, 2012 at 9:33
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    @Sklivvz: Actually, looking at the article again, he doesn't make the argument that banning abortion decreases abortions. He only claims that the Lancet study fails to account for the results listed above. Nonetheless, the argument that banning abortion increases/decreases the number of abortions is a claim made often enough that I shouldn't need to demonstrate notability
    – Casebash
    Nov 3, 2012 at 9:39
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    @nico: I don't quite understand your position. Your first sentence states that banning abortion would drastically decrease the abortion rate, but your second sentence seems to argue people would just cross the border to have an abortion and so it wouldn't have an effect
    – Casebash
    Nov 3, 2012 at 9:57
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    @Casebash he meant that it would have the effect of lowering it locally and increasing it where it's legal, having no overall effect on the global rate. Surely there's some effect in that direction, although it needs to seen whether it's significant at all.
    – Sklivvz
    Nov 3, 2012 at 10:13
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    I'm not sure the count of abortions is anything like the most important issue. What matters is the net harm caused from the combination of abortion, illegal abortion, unwanted pregnancy and all the other interrelated factors. Countries that adopt a pragmatic policy (unlike the black or white debate in the US) tend to allow some abortion because the harms of illegal abortion are considered worse than the lesser evil of some legal abortion.
    – matt_black
    Nov 3, 2012 at 17:05

2 Answers 2


Restricting access to abortion is not an effective way to reduce its frequency

A December 2016 article in The Economist argues that the most effective way to reduce abortion is the effective promotion of contraception. In passing the article mentions the following result (my emphasis):

International comparisons show that bans and restrictions do little to cut the number of abortions. Most women will do what it takes to end an unwanted pregnancy, even to the point of risking their lives. According to the Lancet study, abortion is as common in countries where it is illegal or allowed only to save a woman’s life as it is in those where it is provided on demand.

The article goes on the explain the mechanisms that enable this (my emphasis):

In many countries the authorities turn a blind eye when the rules are broken. Most of Latin America has strict laws, but a woman able to afford high fees can get a safe illegal abortion in a private clinic. (Poor women go to backstreet abortionists, and are sometimes seriously injured or even killed.) In South Korea abortion is legal only in cases of rape, incest or severe fetal abnormalities, or to save a woman’s life. Still, a study for the government in 2005 estimated that 44% of pregnancies were aborted. ...

Where the authorities are more vigilant, women often go abroad or buy abortion pills on the black market. Women from Ireland, Poland and Malta can easily get abortions elsewhere in Europe. In 2015 nearly 3,500 women who gave Irish home addresses had abortions in public clinics in England.

The source for its key facts is a more recent article in The Lancet. This article concludes:

We did not observe an association between the abortion rates for 2010–14 and the grounds under which abortion is legally allowed.


Findings from the descriptive analysis presented here indicate that abortion rates are not substantially different across groups of countries classified according to the grounds under which abortion is legally allowed. The level of unmet need for contraception is higher in countries with the most restrictive abortion laws than in countries with the most liberal laws, and this contributes to the incidence of abortion in countries with restrictive laws.

The paper is notable for a substantially improved set of statistics on abortion rates and factors affecting them compared to previous studies. This reinforces the conclusion that contraception not restrictive access is what reduces abortion rates.

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    This should be the top accepted answer.
    – Lagerbaer
    Dec 14, 2016 at 20:44

From the various researches found, we can draw the conclusion that

Yes, it does decrease abortion rate in the place where it is banned

Education, policies clearly influence

We can find a lot of work regarding the influence of good sexual education explaining lower abortion rate in some countries such as Netherlands. It is truly intuitive to believe it, but research demonstrate it. In 2003, a study over abortion data of the United States from 1974-1988 induced that abortion policies influenced greatly the rate. It concluded that:

Restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion are correlated with lower abortion rates in-state and higher rates among nearby states. [...] A larger number of abortion providers in a state increases the abortionrate, primarily through inducing cross-state travel.

However, it does not directly answer your question since it does not imply the state banned abortion.

Legalization and its effect on the long term

We can find a lot of research notes and papers on the abortion rate trend in the various countries of the world. All of them draw the conclusion that the trend is downward in the majority. In particular, some draw that conclusion:

Legalization of abortion and access to abortion services do not lead to increased reliance on abortion for fertility control in the long term; in developed countries with these conditions, the predominant trend in abortion rates has been downward.

So at least, we know that legalization does not spread the use of abortion as a contraceptive method if alternatives exist.

Effect of the ban in United state

As we said, the legalization does not increase the number of women that want to rely on abortion at a certain moment of their life (at least over the long term). That said, we could conclude that for similar education (on contraception, religion), the rate should more or less the same inside a country. The book "Abortion Rates in the United States: The Influence of Opinion and Policy" study the various researches published on the subject to draw few conclusion. First, public opinion is the most influential factor between state were it is legal. Second, reported abortion number were much lower before legal abortion. Third, illegal abortion increase dramatically the chance of dying.

There is no clear statement or proof that illegal abortion result in lower abortion rate (since we cannot count unreported abortion). But from known statistics, from the facts on influential factors we can draw the conclusion that yes it decreases the abortion rate in the place were it is illegal. However, as stated in the beginning, it might artificially increase the abortion rate in the country or state beside where it is legal.

Hope that my little literature review has helped.

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    To clarify, I don't think your restatement represents their position: "So at least, we know that legalization does not spread the use of abortion as a contraceptive method. From that, we can induce that if X women want to use abortion, legalization will not lead it to X+e nor banning it will lead it to X-e."
    – Casebash
    Nov 7, 2012 at 22:37
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    Your statement at the top, "Yes, it does decrease abortion rate in the place where it is banned", is rather misleading. You should clarify it, e.g. "Yes, it appears to decrease abortion rate in the place where it is banned. But it increases abortion rate in adjacent areas, suggesting that abortions are just shifted from one place to another, not reduced overall."
    – ff524
    Dec 14, 2016 at 4:36
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    The evidence in the answer just doesn't support the headline conclusion and some contradicts it.
    – matt_black
    Dec 14, 2016 at 9:00
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    @ff524 I am baffled that this answer received a bounty by community. It does not prove its point. Dec 14, 2016 at 13:19
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    I have rejected a proposed edit (Oct 2018) because it introduces terms not in the original post or references, especifically repeated use of the term abortion as contraception. I smell an opinion in the edit.
    – user22865
    Oct 11, 2018 at 7:39

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