What the Heck Do We Know About Abortion?

4 Recommendations On How to Use Knowledge in Decision Making

There are many ways your opponent may try to throw you off in a debate. One is by bringing up something that fundamentally challenges your argument in a way you have no answer for.

Despite our conscientious preparations culminating in the latest article in this series, you may still be vulnerable to the following verbal jabs:

  • Only 0.69% of abortions are done for the ‘hard cases’, such as to protect the mother’s life or health, rape, or incest.
  • At around 22 weeks in utero, the fetus has the ability to feel pain.
  • According to science, abortion leads to mental health problems.

What exactly is being thrown at you in such cases? Facts. Information. Or, to use an umbrella term, knowledge.

Overwhelmed by facts? Seeing order in the chaos is much easier if you have the right mental structure. Photo by Timo Volz on Unsplash.

The use of knowledge in decision (and policy) making is a subject that’s especially dear to me as a social scientist. It is also massive and obviously beyond the scope of a humble Medium article.

So here we’ll focus on the big picture instead. In particular, we’ll use the structure we have already developed as an anchor point for a comprehensive overview of all we need to know regarding abortion.

Here’s everything you should consider before entering a debate on abortion. The only novelty compared to Figure 1’s former iteration is that I’ve added encircled numbers to mark where knowledge applies.

Figure 1. Simplified Saturated Policy View for Abortion — Circled numbers represent pieces of knowledge.

Let’s see this probably incomplete but already fairly excessive list of what there is to know about abortion, split by section.

Impact on people

  1. When does life begin?
  2. Does being born after the mother was denied abortion have a negative impact on the child’s physical and/or mental health?
  3. How much stress do unwanted children impose on women?
  4. How many individuals or couples are waiting to adopt? What are their preferences regarding the child’s age or other characteristics?
  5. What Interest Groups have abortion as their central issue? How much money have they spent lobbying or supporting what policymakers?
  6. Does abortion decrease crime? Does forcing women to stay pregnant lead to an increase in crime?
  7. What is the current fertility rate in [insert country]? What fertility rate is best for society?


  1. There is a number of questions we may ask regarding each of the solutions listed in the middle column of Figure 1. What is this solution supposed to accomplish? What is it likely to achieve? Will it, for example, lead to more informed decisions making, decreased anxiety, a reduction in the frequency of abortions, etc.?
  2. Can the fetus feel pain? If yes, at what age?
  3. What are the (physical) health risks associated with abortion?
  4. Does getting an abortion make subsequent mental health worse? Does unwanted pregnancy?
  5. Under what circumstances will abortion happen if it’s illegal?


  1. How common is each of these circumstances regarding abortion?
  2. What risks to the child and mother are associated with the mother’s age?
  3. How much money does it take to raise a child?
  4. Does unwanted pregnancy lead to a higher incidence of interpersonal violence?

Once you have a reasonably well-informed answer to all these questions, you’ll be close to bulletproof in every abortion debate, especially if you combine this knowledge with a deep understanding of Figure 1.

In the remainder of this article I will assist you with four pointers regarding how to best obtain and use such knowledge.

1. Keep an open mind

In one sentence, be a good social scientist. This applies even if you happen to fall in the 99.9% of the population who doesn’t do social science for a living.

The most important thing about gathering knowledge is to identify the right questions and determine how the answers will affect your judgment BEFORE you find the actual answers.

Unfortunately, this principle does not come naturally to most of us. People tend to be motivated reasoners. We seek out information with a goal in mind, usually to prove a point or reinforce our preexisting beliefs.

In other words, we know what answer we want. If we happen to find it, we’ll feel vindicated (and most likely share it on social media). If we find the opposite, we discard it, try to discredit it, or downplay its importance.

Even those who do practice science for a living fall into this trap easily and often, outside and sometimes within their own profession.

On the bright side, open-minded scientific thinking, like any muscle, gets better with training. If you apply the above principle rigorously, check yourself frequently, and interact with people who think critically, you will see results.

Trust me, the rewards will be well worth the effort.

2. Watch out for phrasing and framing

Asking the right questions is often harder than it looks. Change a word and you may get an entirely different question!

Leading questions (Butters, which is funnier? A stupid not-funny giant douche or a super funny turd sandwich?) are still too common in public opinion polls, especially those asked by politicians themselves.

On a related but more general note, framing has been shown to have a huge impact on the answers received (a discovery that earned Tversky and Kahneman a Nobel price).

I don’t know if you picked up on this, but you’ve already seen an example of framing in the list above.

Do you see the difference? In rational terms, these two questions are identical. I’d be willing to bet, however, that we’d get different answers if we asked them separately and out of context.

There is, after all, a reason one side calls it ‘abortion’ and the other ‘baby killing’; while its opposite is dubbed ‘saving lives’ or ‘forcing women to stay pregnant’.

If you look out for leading questions and framing effects, it will become easy to spot them when your opponent throws them your way. By simply pointing them out you can take the sting out of them, along with the wind out of their proponents’ sails.

3. Use structure

It’s virtually impossible for any piece of information to impact everything we included in Figure 1. My advice is: use the structure you’ve already developed to see what parts of the whole picture are affected by the knowledge you’ve just discovered.

Let’s see how this observation holds with respect to the example I started this article with.

This is obviously irrelevant for the father’s role in abortion, has nothing to do with organized interests, is completely unrelated to psychological counseling, and so on.

The only place where it is relevant is at point (1) of Circumstances. Is it good to know? Certainly. Does it turn the entire debate upside down? Hardly. Even if something happens rarely, people in those scenarios are still heavily impacted by the policy that covers them.

You can play this game with every one of the 16 bullet points I listed above. Where does a piece of information apply and why? If repeated, this exercise will strengthen your mental framework and help you mitigate the effect of any piece of information thrown your way in a debate.

4. Select your sources carefully

This one is something we hear so often one would think it’s obvious. In practice, however, selecting the right sources is far from simple. Let’s circle back to the piece of information I started this article with one last time.

This sentence is presented in large font on the website of Human Life International (HLI), a pro-life organization. The information is not theirs, though. They got it from this document, whose title page includes the words ‘all life is sacred’ and ‘pro-life talking points’.

If you dig deeper, you’ll find that the document’s authors themselves cite several sources, including The Guttmacher Institute’s 2005 paper, which puts the number of hard cases around 10%. Some other (usually even older) sources with less well-documented data behind them estimate the incidence rate of hard cases around 5%.

So where does 0.69% come from? “Calculations based on statistics provided by medical journals and government surveys in the United States”, with no source provided.

It looks very much like the editors of HLI and their source cherry-picked the least reliable statistic that most proved their point. Sounds familiar? It should. We rarely find such a nice, clear example of motivated reasoning.

At the same time, let me emphasize that the reason I’m not inclined to believe the 0.69% number is not because HLI is biased. In this example, all sources are biased!

The Guttmacher Institute is outspokenly pro-choice and very closely associated with Planned Parenthood. Not only does Planned Parenthood’s main profile include abortion, they have also donated 2.4 million dollars to pro-choice candidates in this election cycle alone.

The only reason I’m more inclined to trust their estimate of 10% hard cases is that their data quality is much higher than their opponents’. None of which changes the fact, by the way, that hard cases make up a small proportion of abortions. So even though their number was deflated, HLI’s larger point still stands.

Unfortunately, the only way to make sure you base your conclusions on reliable knowledge is to repeat this exercise for each piece of information you’ll use.

For simple facts like the one above, this can work reasonably well as long as you remain diligent and critical. Out of the 16 sets of questions related to abortion, however, only 6 are partially or completely answerable with a single number.

The rest are complex facts based on a relationship between two or more variables. In their case, thorough analysis is hard, even more time-consuming, and requires a particular set of skills.

In my next article I’ll show an example of such a deep-dive. Stay tuned and don’t hesitate to express your own critical thoughts in the comments below.

A political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) fighting for a better world the only way I know how: on the battlefield of idea(l)s.

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