Abortion Debate Skewers Political Pieties

In addition to terminating pregnancies, abortion can inflict considerable collateral damage by puncturing the pieties of contemporary liberalism.


In addition to terminating pregnancies, abortion can inflict considerable collateral damage—principally, by puncturing the smug pieties of contemporary liberalism.

Consider, as Exhibit A, Rosemary Codding. According to a sympathetic piece in The Washington Post, Codding has "tried for months" to "scrape together" enough money for a "costly renovation" of her Falls Church abortion clinic—and she is still short by nearly $1 million. Wherever shall the money come from? Gail France is frustrated as well. "I don't understand or begin to see how this serves any purpose," gripes the owner of another abortion clinic in Northern Virginia.

Like Codding, Frances resents new regulations the state has imposed on her business that govern everything from hallway widths to parking spaces. So does a coalition of women's advocates, which blasted Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli—"and their right-wing partners"—all of whom will "stop at nothing in their crusade to take away the rights of Virginia women."

This is not, to put it mildly, the standard progressive posture regarding the regulation of business. To the contrary: When any other industry is being discussed, most liberals believe the correct level of regulation, always, is: more.

The establishment media certainly agree. Just look at the focus of much investigative journalism today. Investigative journalism is driven not by events—i.e., news—but by newsroom sensibilities. And those sensibilities have given us a seemingly endless train of special investigative series aimed at demonstrating how dangerously under-regulated we are: "Toxic Waters" (The New York Times);  "The Hidden Life of Guns" (The Washington Post); "Dialysis: High Costs and Hidden Perils" (ProPublica); "Poisoned Places: Toxic Air, Neglected Communities" (NPR); "Pharmwater" (the AP); "Aging Nukes" (the AP, again); and too many others to list.

Has there ever been any investigative series suggesting there might sometimes be too much regulation—or even recognizing that as a theoretical possibility? When I asked earlier this summer, the AP could not come up with a single example.

Virginia's abortion-clinic rules therefore might provide a useful service. But not because they will make abortions safer, mind you. Judging from all the available evidence, the state's clinics boast an excellent safety record. Ninety-six percent of the abortions performed in Virginia are carried out during the first trimester, and nationwide, only one-half of 1 percent of such abortions result in complications requiring follow-up surgery or hospitalization. As women's groups around the state correctly insist, more regulation will cost a lot—but have little effect on safety.

To which every other industry in America could respond by quoting Kipling: "Ye need not stop work to inform us—we knew it ten seasons before."

A 1997 article in the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty included a table listing the cost per life saved from a variety of regulations, in constant 1990 dollars. At the lower end: a 1967 standard for car steering columns, which cost only $100,000 per life saved. Given that most regulatory agencies set the value of a statistical life at a few million dollars, that rule was highly cost-effective. Not so a 1986 restriction on arsenic emissions from glass plants, estimated to cost $16 million per life—or a 1991 rule governing atrazine in drinking water, which cost a whopping $109 million per life saved…assuming that it saved any lives at all. Rules such as those are abstruse, but many others are not. Ask your friendly neighborhood building contractor about the EPA's rules for clearing dust off a windowsill. Seriously.

Women's advocates protest that Virginia's abortion-clinic rules are motivated by ideology. And? That merely puts them in the same boat as payday and car-title lenders (along with gun makers, breast-implant manufacturers, and so on). A lot of people view the storefront loan sharks as morally suspect beneficiaries of an unseemly business that gets a disproportionate share of its revenue from poor minorities. A lot of people view the abortion industry the same way. It's no surprise some critics of each have tried to regulate the industries out of existence. That people with agendas exploit government power for political ends is not exactly news. The best way to keep that from happening is to limit government power in the first place—then it won't matter who's in charge.

And thanks to the state's new clinic rules, progressives are discovering regulations really do cost real people real money. This too is a far cry from their usual stance, which entails hostile skepticism toward any claim that complying with a government rule might enfeeble business. Indeed, the public is often fed disingenuous drivel about what a great economic boon the new rules will be: If a factory has to install new equipment or a power company has to meet a higher green-energy standard, why, just think of all the new jobs that will create! The same nonsense could apply to the new clinic requirements, which are creating a lot of business for the construction trade. Funny how this argument hasn't shown up in the abortion debate. (To understand why it's nonsense, read Bastiat on the seen and the unseen.)

And yes, there is certainly a flip side to all of this. Conservative knees usually jerk in reflexive opposition to any new government regulation. The standard Republican line holds that most new regulations have little to do with health and safety and much more to do with anti-business atttitudes. In this case, conservatives happen to be right—yet they vehemently insist otherwise.

What's more, conservatives say, liberals have no idea just how ruinously expensive new rules will be. Yet listen to Victoria Cobb, the executive director of the Family Foundation of Virginia. The other day she told The Washington Post, "I continue to believe a $1 billion industry can come up with the costs needed to be safe and can find the funds to do whatever is needed to operate."

EPA administrator Lisa Jackson couldn't have said it better herself.

This article originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.