Ross Douthat’s European Vacation

Earlier this week, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat wrote an op-ed about the “Texas abortion experiment.” While the conservative columnist acknowledged that Texas’s new law could make “first-trimester abortions harder to obtain,” he spent much of the piece downplaying the very real threats this law poses to women’s health and talking up similarly restrictive laws in Europe.

Douthat looks to the example of a number of European countries, including Ireland, for how the Texas law could play out. Yet he rejects comparisons between the United States and other certain countries that enact restrictive abortion laws. According to Douthat, concerns that “Women’s lives will be endangered, their health threatened, their economic opportunities substantially foreclosed” in America stem from similar outcomes in poorer and more conservative areas of the world and therefore are not appropriate sources to examine. He also adds that it is difficult to determine if “those bans actually hold back progress and development.”

Actually, it’s not that difficult. Studies have shown that when abortion is illegal, women still terminate their pregnancies—they just do so in unhygienic and dangerous conditions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a think tank whose work Douthat also links to in his column:

“Unsafe abortion is a significant cause of ill-health among women in the developing world…. Treating medical complications from unsafe abortion places a significant financial burden on public health care systems in the developing world.  … Unsafe abortion has significant negative consequences beyond its immediate effects on women’s health. For example, complications from unsafe abortion may reduce women’s productivity, increasing the economic burden on poor families; cause maternal deaths that leave children motherless; cause long-term health problems, such as infertility; and result in considerable costs to already struggling public health systems.”

I don’t know, those all seem like consequences that could negatively affect a country’s progress and development.

Douthat correctly notes that many European countries already restrict abortion to varying degrees, most commonly making the procedure more difficult to access after the first trimester of pregnancy. He also accurately points out that many European countries have a lower abortion rate than the U.S. does.

However, Douthat fails to consider that many of these countries also offer universal health care, which eases the financial burden of accessing first-trimester abortion care and also affording reliable contraceptive methods. He also pays scant attention to the myriad other ways in which obtaining an abortion in a European country is markedly different from doing so in this one. For instance, these countries are geographically smaller than the U.S.; indeed, even large nations like France and Germany are smaller than Texas. Having to travel a shorter distance from home to the clinic makes it easier to get to the clinic. Likewise, a number of European countries ensure that families have access to affordable childcare and relatively generous parental leave, making it easier for working women and/or ones who already has children to make on or more trips to the clinic. And cultural differences between the U.S and Europe, particularly Western Europe, are also worth mentioning. Sexual education is generally taught earlier and in a more comprehensive manner than in the States, and it is difficult not to wonder if this more straightforward approach helps lessen the social stigma of abortion and make it easier for women to find assistance.

But Douthat doesn’t consider any of these factors, choosing only to mention, almost as an aside, that much of Europe is more socially liberal than Texas. His refusal to look at the bigger picture is as maddening as his hollow reassurance that “even if abortion were somehow banned outright in Texas tomorrow, it would still be available to women with the resources to travel out of state.”

Well, yes. That was true in the years pre-Roe as well, when women that could afford to would travel as far as Japan to access safe, legal abortion care. But creating this two-tier system of reproductive health care also means that women that live in Texas and don’t have the ability to go to another state for their abortions may go to another country: across the border to Mexico, where the medical care is more affordable but also often more dangerous. And why exactly is Douthat advocating that the rich may get abortions but the poor can’t?

There are compelling lessons in the European model for ways to lower abortion rates. But uncritically presenting restrictive laws as the way forward is not one of them.

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out


  1. Sarah, you always make strong arguments. I won’t say “however . . .” I’ll just say that you make some good comparisons to European countries, but the US’s hypocrisy is much more pronounced against womyn in developing countries. The quote from Guttmacher is on the mark.

    Unfortunately abortion access is not the only problem the USFG’s foreign policy as far as womyn’s health is concerned.

    #1 The US has never signed onto the UN’s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

    Restricting womyn’s access to healthcare is clearly in defiance of the treaty’s principles. For all of the US’s critiques against other countries, guess who has signed onto the CEDAW that the US has sanctioned?

    Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, just to name a few. I’m not saying these countries have great politics. But I AM calling out the US for its effed up foreign policies.

    #2 When the US has refused to give aid to African countries where womyn receive clitorectomies, female circumcision gets pushed underground, similar to abortion, and it gets very unsafe for the young women who are being circumcised. In Egypt, clitorectomy is performed in a hospital. Guess what? The US doesn’t have sanctions with Egypt because it wants to trade with Egypt. It doesn’t critique their healthcare policies because of the USFG’s material interests.

    #3 The USFG’s foreign policy record is also tainted by it’s approval of the Ford Foundation’s testing of the copper IUD on womyn in India in the 1980′s. They had to consent to an IUD insertion in order for their families to receive land grants. Many womyn ended up with collapsed cervixes or other reproductive health complications – many of them fatal.

    I’ll limit my critique of US foreign policy to those three issues. I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said about state restrictions or what’s happening in Europe. But I think we need to include a much broader focus on foreign policy to get a better idea of what womyn face all over the world.

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