[Paleopsych] Public Interest: Charles Murray: Measuring abortion

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Charles Murray: Measuring abortion

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    Measuring abortion
    Charles Murray

    SEX and Consequences: Abortion, Public Policy and the Economics of Fertility
    is a model of contemporary social science discourse, revealing in one
    book both how the enterprise should be conducted and its vulnerability to 
    vision on the big issues.

    Phillip B. Levine, a professor of economics at Wellesley College, sets out 
    Sex and Consequences to explore the thesis that the role of abortion is akin 
    the role of insurance. Legal abortion provides protection from a risk 
(having an
    unwanted child), just as auto insurance provides financial protection 
    the risk of an accident. Legalizing abortion has a main effect of reducing
    unwanted births, just as auto insurance has a main effect of reducing
    individuals' losses from auto accidents.

    But abortion faces the same problems of moral hazard as other kinds of
    insurance. Just as a driver with complete insurance may be more likely to 
    an accident, a woman who has completely free access to abortion may be more
    likely to have an accidental pregnancy. Levine hypothesizes that legislated
    restrictions on abortion might serve the same purpose as deductibles do on 
    insurance--they alter behavior without having much effect on net outcomes. 
    a state with some restrictions on abortion may have no more unwanted births 
    a state without restrictions, even though the number of abortions is smaller 
    the restrictive state. The restrictions raise the costs of abortion, and 
    moderate their behavior to reduce the odds of an unwanted pregnancy.

    Levine develops his model carefully and with nuance, and eventually wends 
    way back to conclusions about its empirical validity (it is broadly 
    with the evidence). But the chapters between the presentation of the model 
    the conclusions about it are not limited to the insurance thesis. They
    constitute a comprehensive survey of the quantitative work that has been 
done on
    the behavioral effects of abortion, incorporating analysis of the abortion
    experience worldwide as well as in the United States.

    THE book's virtues are formidable. Levine writes clearly, avoids jargon

    (or explains what the jargon means when he can't avoid it), and is 
    civil in characterizing the positions in the abortion debate. He is 
    giving the reader confidence that he is not playing favorites when the data 
    inconclusive or contradictory. The breadth and detail of the literature 
    are exemplary. The book is filled with convenient summaries of material that
    could take a researcher weeks to assemble--a table showing the differences 
    abortion policy across European countries plus Canada and Japan, for 
    Levine also gets high marks for one of the most challenging problems for any
    social scientist who is modeling complex human behavior: making the model 
    enough to be testable while not losing sight of the ways in which it
    oversimplifies the underlying messiness of human behavior.

    The book's inadequacies reflect not so much Levine's failings as the nature 
    contemporary social science. Abortion policy is one of the great moral
    conundrums of our time. Anyone who is not the purest of the pure on one side 
    the other has had to wrestle with the moral difference (or whether there 
even is
    one) between destroying an embryo when it is a small collection of cells and
    when it is unmistakably a human fetus. None of the tools in Levine's toolkit 
    speak to this problem. Levine is aware of this, and makes the sensible point
    that more argumentation on the philosophical issues is not going to get us
    anywhere. He has picked a corner of the topic where his tools are useful, he
    says, and that's a step in the right direction. Still, as I read his
    dispassionate review of the effects of abortion policy on the pregnancy 
rate, I
    could not help muttering to myself occasionally, "Aside from that, Mrs. 
    how was the play?" *

    EVEN granting the legitimacy of looking where the light is good, Sex and
    Consequences may be faulted for sheering away from acknowledging how much
    scholars could do to inform the larger issues if they were so inclined. Here 
    Levine discussing the non-monetary costs of abortion:
    The procedure may be physically unpleasant for the patient. She may
    need to take time off from work and spend time traveling to an
    abortion provider that may not be local. When she gets to the
    provider's location, there may be protesters outside the clinic,
    making her feel intimidated or even scared. If her family and/or
    friends find out about it, she may feel some stigma. Finally, it
    should not be overlooked that the procedure may be very difficult
    psychologically for a woman in a multitude of ways that cannot be
    easily expressed.

    "Cannot be easily expressed"? The woman is destroying what would, if left 
    have become her baby. That's easy enough to express. That Levine could not 
    himself to spit out this simple reason why "the procedure may be very 
    psychologically" is emblematic of the tunnel vision that besets contemporary
    social science.

    A policy is established that has implications for the most profound 
questions of
    what it means to be human, to be a woman, to be a member of a community. 
What is
    the most obvious topic for research after such a policy is instituted? To 
me, a
    leading candidate is the psychological effects on the adult human beings who 
    caught up in this problematic behavior. There are ways to study these 
    Quantifiable measures of psychological distress are available--rates of 
    or specific psychological symptoms, for example--not to mention 
    techniques for collecting systematic qualitative data. And yet it appears 
    Levine's review that the only thing that social scientists can think of to 
    are outcomes such as pregnancy rates, abortion rates, birth rates, age of 
    intercourse, and welfare recipiency. I don't know if there are good studies 
    psychological effects that Levine thought were outside his topic, or whether 
    available studies aren't numerous enough or good enough to warrant 
treatment. I
    suspect that good studies just aren't available--Levine gives the impression 
    covering all the outcomes that the literature has addressed.

    IS the tunnel vision a result of political correctness or of the inherent
    limitations of quantitative social science? One should not underestimate the
    role of technical problems. Counting pregnancy rates is relatively easy;
    assessing long-term psychological outcomes for women who have abortions is 
    tougher and more expensive. Studying topics such as the coarsening effect 
    abortion might have on a society would be tougher yet. But it remains a fact
    that the overwhelming majority of academics who collect data on the effects 
    abortion policy are ardently pro-choice. The overwhelming majority of their
    colleagues and friends are ardently pro-choice. To set out on a research 
    that might in the end show serious psychological harm to women who have
    abortions or serious social harm to communities where abortions rates are 
    would take more courage and devotion to truth than I have commonly 
    among today's academics. Actually, Levine represents a significant profile 
    courage. By concluding that restrictions on abortion do not necessarily have
    "bad" effects (from a pro-choice perspective), Levine is stating a 
    that most of his fellow academics do not want to hear.

    What makes the tunnel vision most frustrating is the extent to which it 
    uninteresting results. Out of all the tables that Levine presents and all 
    generalizations he draws from the extant literature, hardly any of the 
    fall in the category of "I would never have expected that." Economics does
    indeed explain many things under the rubric of "make it more expensive and 
    get less of it, subsidize it and you get more of it." But we knew that 
    And when it comes to the less obvious findings, one is seldom looking at 
    transforming effects, but at effects that are statistically significant but
    small in magnitude. Levine is caught in the same bind as all of us who 
    quantitative social science: The more precisely we can measure something, 
    less likely we are to learn anything important. But as we try to measure
    something important less precisely, the more vulnerable we become to 
    attack. And so it has come to pass that on the great issues that 
    social scientists might study, we are so often irrelevant.

    Princeton University Press. 215 pp. $35.00.

    * There should be a rule requiring anyone reviewing a book on a 
    policy to disclose his own biases. With regard to the morality of abortion, 
    set the bar high--abortion for any but compelling reasons is in my view 
    wrong, and my definition of "compelling" is strict. But I think that 
    do a bad job of characterizing where the bar should be, and that, except in
    extreme cases such as partial-birth abortion, the onus for discouraging 
    should rest with family and community, not laws. My legal position is thus


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    3. http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0377/is_158

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