Abortion and Infanticide

May 17, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston
Cross posted at Sociological Images

Does “the abortion culture” cause infanticide?  Does legalizing the aborting of a fetus in the womb create a cultural, moral climate where people feel free to kill newborn babies?

It’s not a new argument.  I recall a Peggy Noonan op-ed in the Times in 1998, “Abortion’s Children,”* arguing that kids who grew up in the abortion culture are “confused and morally dulled.”  Earlier this week, USA Today ran an op-ed by Mark Rienzi repeating this argument in connection with the Gosnell murder conviction. 

Rienzi argues that the problem is not one depraved doctor.  As the subhead says:
The killers are not who you think. They’re moms.

Worse, he warns, infanticide has skyrocketed.
While murder rates for almost every group in society have plummeted in recent decades, there's one group where murder rates have doubled, according to CDC and National Center for Health Statistics data — babies less than a year old.
Really? The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports has a different picture.

Many of these victims were not newborns, and Rienzi is talking about day-of-birth homicides – the type of killing Dr. Gosnell was convicted of – a substitute for abortion.  Most of these, as Rienzi says are committed not by doctors but by mothers.  I make the assumption that the method in most of these cases is smothering.  These smothering deaths show an even steeper decline since 1998.

Where did Rienzi get his data that rates had doubled?  By going back to 1950.

The data on infanticide fit with his idea that legalizing abortion increased rates of infanticide.  The rate rises after Roe v. Wade (1973) and continues upward till 2000.

But that hardly settles the issue. Yes, as Rienzi says, “The law can be a potent moral teacher.”  But many other factors could have been affecting the increase in infanticide, factors much closer to the actual killing of a child by its mother – the mother’s age, education, economic and family circumstances, blood lead levels, etc. 

If Roe changed the culture, then that change should be reflected not just in the very small number of infanticides but in attitudes in the general population. Unfortunately, the GSS did not ask about abortion till 1977, but since that year, attitudes on abortion have changed very little.  Nor does this measure of “abortion culture” have any relation to rates of infanticide.

If there is a relation between infanticide and general attitudes about abortion, then we would expect to see higher rates of infanticide in areas where attitudes on abortion are more tolerant. 

The South and Midwest are most strongly anti-abortion, the West Coast and Northeast the most liberal.  Do these cultural difference affect rates of infanticide?

The actual rates of infanticide** are precisely the opposite of what the cultural explanation would predict.  Regions that are more anti-abortion have higher rates of infanticide. Regions that are more accepting of abortion rights have lower rates of infanticide.  The abortion culture does not seem to work the way Rienzi and Noonan claim.

The data instead support a different explanation of infanticide, an explanation that looks at laws and policies and how these shape individual decisions. Some state laws make it harder for a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.  Under those conditions, more women will resort to infanticide.  By contrast, where abortion is safe, legal, and available, women will terminate unwanted pregnancies well before parturition. 

The absolutist pro-lifers will dismiss the data by insisting that there is really no difference between abortion and infanticide and  that infanticide is just a very late-term abortion. As Rienzi puts it,
As a society, we could agree that there really is little difference between killing a being inside and outside the womb.
In fact, very few Americans could agree with this proposition. Instead, they do distinguish between a cluster of a few fertilized cells and a newborn baby. I know of no polls that ask about infanticide, but I would guess that a large majority would say that it is wrong under all circumstances.  But only perhaps 20% of the population thinks that abortion is wrong under all circumstances.

Whether the acceptance of abortion in a society makes people “confused and morally dulled” depends on how you define and measure those concepts.  But the data do strongly suggest that whatever “the abortion culture” might be, it lowers the rate of infanticide rather than increasing it.

* I had trouble finding Noonan’s op-ed at the Times Website.  Fortunately, then-Rep. Talent (R-MO) entered it into the Congressional Record.

** The data are from the CDC.  In earlier version of this post, I used data based on the CDC’s more inclusive “external causes” codes which include accidents.   


Tamar said...

Thank you. Very interesting. I wonder if there is also a cross-country analysis available: is there less infanticide in Ireland than in, say, the Russian Federation?

Jay Livingston said...

I don't know what data might be out there. But I would imagine that cross-national comparisons would be especially complicated because of all those other factors that can affect rates of unwanted pregnancy and infanticide.

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