Friday, December 30, 2011

Intelligent Thinking About Abortion

Abortion is an extremely divisive issue in the USA. Doctors who performed abortions have been murdered, abortion clinics have been bombed and Warren Buffett’s companies were once boycotted because his charities supported Planned Parenthood. 41% of people favor of abortion for any reason and 59% of people oppose it. For reasons of rape, mother’s health or fetal deformation, the percentage of support jumps to at least 80%.

A phenomenal number of abortions are performed every year. Almost half of all pregnancies are unintended and 40% of those are aborted, meaning that 1 in 5 of all pregnancies in the US is aborted. In 2008 1.21 million abortions were performed – down from 1.31 in 2000.

Although the overall abortion rate is declining it isn’t true for all sectors of society. The over rate of unintended pregnancies has remained stagnant but has increased by 50% among poor women and declined 29% among higher income women between 1994 and 2006. Similarly the abortion rate among the poor increased by 18% and declined 28% among the better off between 2000 and 2008. The poor or disadvantaged now account for nearly 70% of all abortions. In other words, because unplanned pregnancies are mostly a lower class phenomenon, and becoming more so, abortion is increasingly becoming a lower class phenomenon. Due to the tight relationship between IQ and social class, abortion is no doubt mostly a lower IQ problem too. Certainly the odds of an unplanned pregnancy increases strongly as IQ drops – see my post on the subject .

Since abortions are disproportionately chosen by the less intelligent maybe legal abortion is a stupid policy? On the other hand maybe the stupidity lies entirely within the unplanned pregnancy phase of the process. Maybe the abortion IQ association is entirely explained by the common connection of poverty. Let’s look at what the Smart Vote says about abortion itself. In the table below we can see that the Smart Vote is in favor of abortion being legal – especially when the reason doesn’t get general support. The Smart Vote of 187 for abortion for any reason simply means that those with IQs over 120 were 87% more likely to support abortion for any reason that those with IQs below 85.



Note that having most of the information on abortion you need is more than twice as likely among the smart but that, in spite of the greater knowledge, the Smart Vote is against forming a very firm opinion on abortion. Also, in contrast to the extreme divisiveness the issue produces, the Smart Vote is for not taking abortion issues too seriously. For example the Smart Vote is for abortion being salient only sometimes, for being not that concerned about it, and for regarding it as not very important – as opposed to abortion being salient a lot or not at all, being either very or not at all important, etc.

I still need to rule out confounding factors, like poverty, before I can conclude that the policy of legal abortion is the intelligent way to go. The table below shows the results of controlling for education, income, age, social class, political ideology (liberal versus conservative) and belief in God.

Contrary to expectations, it’s the wealthy upper classes that are more likely to think poverty a good enough reason to end a pregnancy. A small income also increases opposition to rape or not wanting more kids, as reasons for abortion. Finally the poor are more likely to think a husband’s consent is necessary to allow an abortion.

As expected, being a political Conservative and belief in God are strongly associated with being against abortion – no matter what the reason. It’s interesting that conservatism doesn’t explain the effect of belief in God, or visa versa.

There is a weak unreliable trend for older people to favor abortion – when other factors are controlled.

Greater education is associated with higher levels of support for abortion.




The interesting thing however is that being smarter is independently associated with greater support for abortion on demand. That is quite remarkable because virtually all the pro abortion control factors are correlated with IQ, and would therefore take away some of the explanatory power of IQ.

So, smarter policy is to allow abortion on demand. It’s also smarter not to place a great deal of importance or concern on abortion issues – there are more important things to focus on.

But why should pro choice be a smarter choice than pro life?

The General Social Survey offers some help. Two of the questions asked are “What reasons in favor of abortion have you heard of?” and “What reasons against abortion have you heard of?” Respondents were given the opportunity to mention up to 3 different reasons. Unfortunately the questions don’t ask whether the reasons are seen as good, bad or compelling. Nonetheless I think people are more likely to mention the reasons they, or the advocates they identify with, find relatively more compelling.

I grouped various reasons that obviously belonged together e.g. those referring to ‘rights’, ‘risk’, ‘abnormal fetuses’, ‘murder’, ‘cost’, etc. I also dropped reasons that were mentioned by fewer than 3% of respondents.

Furthermore I only looked at the “Pro” abortion reasons of those who are in favor of abortion on demand, and the “Anti” reasons for those opposed to abortion on demand. Insofar as people adopt positions after hearing arguments then those who adopt a stance are in the best position to judge what it was that convincing to them. However when people look for rationalizations after adopting a stance then those who are attempting to rationalize will be the ones who generate the rationalizations. For both reasons then, pro choicer advocates should judge the pro reasons and pro life advocates the con reasons.

Finally I applied the Smart Vote to the responses i.e. I tested the reasons to discover which were relatively smart or daft. The results are in the Table below.



Firstly, the ‘none’ category, in both the for and against camps, resulted in very low Smart Vote scores i.e. smart people are less than 1/10th as likely as dull people to fail to mention a reason for their stance. It is exceedingly stupid to stand for or against something for no reason at all.

Secondly, a woman’s autonomous right to choose is seen as an intelligent reason to allow legal abortions, and the notion that the woman’s choice should not be autonomous is seen as an unintelligent reason for disallowing legal abortions.

In his book Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker gives a superb defense of the morality of autonomous choice. “Until recently women – or rather their sexuality and reproductive capacity – were regarded as the property of men – firstly their fathers and brothers and then their husbands. The humanist mindset has changed that. Instead of grounding morality in power, tradition or religious practice it bases it on the suffering and flourishing of sentient individuals. The mindset has been sharpened into the principle of autonomy: that people have an absolute right to their bodies, which may not be treated as a common resource to be negotiated among other interested parties. For example, with regard to rape it does not seek to balance the interests of a woman not to be raped, the interests of men who may wish to rape her and the interests of the husbands and fathers who want to monopolize her sexuality. The traditional valuation is upended. Now the woman’s own interests count for everything and the interests of all the other claimants count for nothing. This revaluation also underlies the abolition of slavery, despotism, debt bondage, and cruel punishment during the Enlightenment.” “Insofar as violence is immoral, the Rights Revolutions show that a moral way of life often requires a decisive rejection of instinct, culture, religion and standard practice. In their place is an ethics inspired by empathy and reason and stated in the language of rights. We force ourselves into the shoes of others and consider their interests and ignore superficialities like age, race, gender, and even species.”

The morality of autonomous choice is the result of a morality that stresses reason. That it is seen as one of the more intelligent reasons for allowing legal abortion should come as no surprise.

Thirdly, allowing abortion when a woman’s life or health is endangered is seen as intelligent but denying the right to choose an abortion because the process of abortion itself might be risky is seen as unintelligent. Again the reasonableness of the woman making autonomous choices about her own welfare is stressed.

Fourthly, the rights of the unborn are seen as an intelligent reason for disallowing abortion. This reminds us that there are two parties with legitimate rights based stakes in the decision whether to allow legal abortion. The intelligent thing is not to forget that but there is no way to get around the issue of which party’s rights are paramount. The Smart Vote says it should be the woman’s rights. One may venture a guess at why that should be so. The woman is clearly an autonomous sentient being while the fetus is not. The earliest possibility of sentience is well after the point at which almost all abortions are performed. In any case the smarter among those who oppose abortion don’t support the idea that abortion is murder.

Fifthly, justifications based on not being able to afford a child, or unwanted children imposing too high a social cost, are not seen as reasonable grounds to have an abortion. While extra people do involve additional costs they also end up producing stuff or ideas. In fact economists have shown that additional people are a net benefit. That fact lends weight to the Smart Vote rejection of this justification of abortion.

Sixth, the Smart Vote is very weakly for rape or incest being a good reason to allow an abortion. The reason is that this is such an easy ‘problem’. Almost everyone who is explicitly asked if this is a valid reason to allow an abortion says that it is. So the fact that the Smart Vote is above 100 at all is significant i.e. rape or incest is a good reason to allow a legal abortion. The same applies to abnormalities in the child.

Finally, religion and the bible are seen as an intelligent basis for rejecting abortion. I confess that I find this difficult to explain. Religious belief and reliance on the bible are themselves both strongly rejected by the Smart Vote, and as a basis for morality religion conflicts with the humanistic reason based rights approach mentioned above. Still the fact is that the Smart Vote is decidedly for legal abortion on demand, which is consistent with placing humanistic morality above religious authority.

To summarize – seeing women (and sentient individuals generally) as autonomous moral entities rather than a common resource appears to be the intelligent way to go. Allowing women to abort their pregnancy for their own reasons, follows logically.

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