What Can Europe Teach Us About Abortion?

Last month, Douthat argued that “the European experience suggests that at least some abortion restrictions are compatible with equality and female advancement.” Katha Pollitt fired back:

Abortion is complicated, like everything that has to do with sex. Germany’s abortion rate is much lower than ours, but Sweden’s is almost the same. The Netherlands is almost as low as Germany, despite permitting abortion much later. In much of Italy, it’s hard to find an abortion because so many doctors refuse to perform them—and yet Italy, like Germany, has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. One thing seems pretty clear, though: all these countries have plenty of abortions. But in the Western European countries with time limits, there is less need for second trimester abortion because there is far better access to abortion earlier.

I somehow don’t think that is a trade-off conservative pundits are willing to make.

Douthat goes another round:

[I]t is an oversimplification to suggest that France or Germany are somehow obviously more “pro-life” overall than the United States, given the multiplicity of differences between our system and theirs. But it’s also an oversimplification to say that the U.S. is unique among developed nations in having significant variations in abortion access, or robust political debate on the issue. And the reason to look at the European experience is not because the continent is somehow an exemplar of exactly the policies that pro-life American conservatives are pushing now, or would put in place if given constitutional license. Rather, it’s because it provides examples of many different approaches to the issue — stringently pro-life with a stronger welfare state (Ireland), expansively pro-choice with a much stronger welfare state (Sweden), more pro-life in law but relatively pro-choice in practice (Spain, until recently), relatively pro-choice in law but more culturally pro-life (Italy, arguably), and so on — that don’t necessarily map on to America’s right vs. left debate at all.

This variation, in turn, gives us more data on the original question that my column asked: What happens to a modern society when abortion is restricted?