It was inevitable that abortion would come up as an issue when the Mercatus Center released its latest Freedom in the 50 States report rating North Dakota as the freest state in the union roughly an eyeblink after that state passed arguably the tightest abortion restrictions in the country. And nevermind that the otherwise-excellent report, which was based on data up through the end of 2011, couldn't possibly have included that law, or a similar Arkansas measure, in its calculations. Abortion is a hot-button issue, it's in the headlines, and the decision by report authors William P. Ruger and Jason Sorens to completely exclude the matter from consideration couldn't help but be taken as what it is: a cop-out.
Ruger and Sorens are right to note that libertarians, like Americans in general, are conflicted on this issue:
According to one view, a fetus is a rights-bearing person, and abortion is therefore an aggressive violation of individual rights that ought to be punished by the government. According to another view, a fetus does not have rights, and abortion is a permissible exercise of an individual liberty, which entails that government regulation of abortion is an unjust violation of a woman's rights.
But instead of coming down one way or the other (which would have risked alienating part of the audience), or including data on abortion laws in the online personalizer (which would have been my preference) so that people could toggle it on or off, Ruger and Sorens "coded the data on state abortion restrictions and made them available online at www. statepolicyindex.com, but have not included the policy in the index of freedom." Ouch. That's a great way to dodge the issue without dodging any of the flack generated by the battle over the issue.
Maybe abortion seemed like a relatively safe bet for exclusion because Ruger and Sorens are guys. Whichever side of the debate men come down on, abortion is always going to be a bit of a hypothetical for us. I know more than a few guys who have little interest in this particular debate, but all the women I know, probably because they have to take the bullet, so to speak, have strong opinions on the matter. That doesn't mean they all end up agreeing on the issue — not a damned chance — but they all seem to have given it serious thought.
Because of my cultural background, most of the women I know are pro-choice (as I am). A high proportion have actually terminated pregnancies. You can bet that they consider abortion restrictions, or the lack thereof, important in deciding just how free any given jurisdiction is.
Yes, abortion is controversial and people who care about freedom disagree about it. But ignoring the issue doesn't make it go away. Including data about the issue as an option for people to consider in personalizing their own rankings would have made a good report even better.