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Abortion and Paternalism

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 9, 2023; ported here on January 9, 2024

Bryan Caplan argues that abortion is "generally ill-advised," that government (assuming it exists) should recognize that fact, that government therefore should not subsidize abortions, and that a paternalistic "nudger" such as Richard Thaler, logically, should support more-paternalistic "nudges" against abortion, including waiting periods and "opt-out counseling."

I agree with Caplan that government ought not subsidize abortions, but that's because I think government violates people's rights by forcing them to finance it.

What of Caplan's other claims? Caplan basically is arguing that women are too stupid or self-unreflective to rationally decide to get an abortion. Caplan's attitude, although not his policy proposals, is astonishingly paternalistic.

Here is Caplan's argument:

Key starting point: Parents very rarely regret having children—even initially "unwanted" children. This is not mere status quo bias: Most childless adults eventually regret not having children. As I've said about parenthood before, "Buyer's remorse is rare; non-buyer's remorse is common." Implication: Most women who want to terminate their pregnancies would probably change their minds after their babies are born. Most won't go through the next eighteen years thinking, "I wish I'd gotten that abortion."

The evidence for Caplan's first claim comes from a 1976(!) Newsday study that he wrote about in 2009. There is no evidence there that "parents very rarely regret having . . . even initially 'unwanted' children." There is evidence that substantial numbers of people do (or did) regret having children: 9% of women, 15% of people under 25, 19% of Black respondents, 13% of low-income people (income under $5,000 in 1976 dollars), and 12% of college dropouts. Contrary to Caplan's summary, this evidence strongly shows that substantial numbers of people regret having children. That point alone blows his case out of the water.

And Caplan has other problems. Let us concede that some women regret getting an abortion. Most don't. Reuters reported (2015), "More than 95 percent of women surveyed in a new U.S. study said they didn't regret having an abortion and felt that the procedure was the right decision for them."

Caplan's claim that "most childless adults eventually regret not having children" is irrelevant to his thesis. The New York Times reports, "Six in 10 women who have abortions are already mothers, and half of them have two or more children, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention." And of course some substantial fraction of women who get an abortion go on to later have children, at a time in life when they are better-able to raise children.

That leaves Caplan's line, "Most women who want to terminate their pregnancies would probably change their minds after their babies are born." No kidding. This is only to say that, once a fetus develops and is born, the parents generally love the child. No loving parent will say, after a child is born, that they wish, in retrospect, that they'd aborted (the fetus that would develop into) that child. That doesn't say anything about a woman's rationality in concluding that she wants to abort a fetus, before it has developed and been born.

Women have a right to get an abortion (possibly excepting some late-term situations), even if they are irrational about it in the sense that their future selves would regret the abortion. But generally women are rational about such decisions, and they deserve better than to be treated as though they were children by men who should know better.

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