Modeling Social Processes–Abortion in Cross-national Comparison

Thanks to a post by Zoe and Geoff, I decided to use the social fact of variation in abortion rates from country to country as the inspiration for class discussion today on the modeling process in social sciences. First, the data* (listing only the top and bottom 10–the US is 30th (out of 90 countries with data available) with a rate of 23.9% in 2003):

Country

Year

%

Russia

2005

52.5

Greenland

2004

50.2

Bosnia and Herzegovina

1988

48.9

Estonia

2004

47.4

Romania

2004

46.9

Belarus

2004

44.6

Hungary

2004

42.0

Guadeloupe

2005

41.4

Ukraine

2004

40.4

Bulgaria

2004

40.3

Suriname

1994

3.0

Puerto Rico

2001

2.2

Malta

2004

1.7

Qatar

2004

1.3

Portugal

2005

0.8

Venezuela

1968

0.8

Mexico

2003

0.2

Poland

2004

0.06

Panama

2000

0.02

Chile

1991

0.02

Now, according to Lave and March, the next step in the model-building process is to consider a social process that would lead to this outcome. There were three potential answers given in class, which correspond to three categories of explanation that we will address throughout the course:

1) Cultural–it would seem that religion is very important to individuals in the countries with the lowest rates. Most of these countries are strongly Catholic and the Church’s official policies are strongly anti-abortion (pro-life). Thus, individuals in these societies are inculcated with a strong view of what to do in the case of an unwanted pregnancy.

2) Rational Choice–one of the groups argued that the decision to abort (or not) a fetus was made on the basis of strategic calculations of self-interest. The countries at the bottom, these students argued, were agricultural and poorer, and children are needed as a source of labor for the household, as a future hedge against retirement for parents who live in societies with a poorly developed social welfare state, with little hope of receiving retirement funds from the government.

3) Institutional–rules, laws, regulations. Some students argued that some countries (like Chile) have laws making abortion illegal, thus either lowering the number overall, or decreasing the incentive for those having illegal abortions to report them to the official authorities.

That was great work; give yourselves a pat on the back or a round of applause.

The third step in the modeling process is, then, to tease out further implications of your preferred hypothesis above. Let’s go back to the cultural explanation. If it’s true that the Catholic Church has a tremendous impact on people’s views of what is right and wrong then, as one student asked, “wouldn’t it also be the case that divorce levels in these countries should be lower than divorce levels in the countries at the top of the list (since the Catholic Church also frowns upon divorce) ?

If you find that your intuition here is correct, then you have much stronger reason to believe that your initial hypothesis was correct. Can you think of further implications for the rational choice and institutional explanations above?

Interestingly, if you were to perform a sub-national cross-state comparison within the United States alone, I believe that you would find there to be a negative relationship between the divorce rate and abortion rate. I know for a fact that the more religious states are also those with higher divorce rates, and I haven’t looked at the data but I believe that those same states are the states with the lowest abortion rates. What accounts for this? It  suggests, possibly, that culture isn’t the story within the US but that one of the other factors is more important.  What about an institutional factor–easy access to an abortion clinic, or family planning center?

*This is from a website called Johnson’s Archive, which looks to be an individual’s private blog. Thus, you should be diligent about verifying the data sources, the measurements, etc. In fact, you should scrutinize data carefully regardless of who is providing it, even a well-known IGO like the United Nations. Always go the their methodology and/or measurement sections to determine how the data were collected and tabulated and what assumptions were used. The abortion statistics listed on Johnson’s website are backed by copious references to the origins of the data.

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