Professor Stephen Schneck is a conundrum. He’s a Catholic who works for the Catholic University of America (CUA). But he’s involved with the group Catholics for Obama—despite the church hierarchy’s view that the president is attacking the religious freedom of Catholics. He’s pro-life. But he supports Democratic politicians universally—even though the party has become manifestly hostile to pro-lifers. Schneck’s most puzzling contradiction is this: He claims that while Democrats support abortion rights, it’s really Republicans who cause abortions.
Schneck is very specific about it. He has numbers. At an event in Charlotte earlier this month during the Democratic convention, Schneck spoke on a panel hosted by Democrats for Life. He asked the audience, “Can one vote for Romney if it means a 6, or 7, or, God forbid, 8 percent increase in the number of abortions in America?”
That’s an interesting question. Interesting because (1) it contradicts the received wisdom about abortion and (2) it does so with seeming mathematical precision. Schneck doesn’t foresee a 4 percent jump. Or a 12 percent jump. He locates the projected rise in a narrow band. It’s the kind of figure that brings you up short. Because Stephen Schneck isn’t just some crank professor trying to rile up his undergraduates. He’s the director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies—CUA’s in-house think tank. As IPR says on its website, the “institute continues to bring rigorous academic research to bear on contemporary questions of public policy and religion.”
So when Schneck says that the number of abortions will increase under Mitt Romney, by 6 or 7 or 8 percent, he isn’t just popping off. He’s a serious academic, wearing Catholic University’s pointiest, most rigorous, social science hat.
Or so, at first, I thought.
Schneck made that claim twice during the panel—once in his prepared remarks and again in response to questioning from the audience. Neither time did he qualify it with any of the hedges social scientists normally use. He didn’t say that this was “a theory,” or “it’s entirely possible that.” He explained his numbers thus:
Medicaid now pays for more than one-third of all births in America. Pregnancies are expensive. The medical costs of newborns are expensive. An abortion by contrast costs hardly anything at all. So what will gutting Medicaid by 40 percent mean for abortion? I’m convinced that the number of abortions in America would skyrocket if those cuts are made. The rate of abortions will likely skyrocket if Romney and Ryan are elected and have their way with Medicaid.
After the event I asked Schneck for a bit more detail on these numbers. I assumed he had published research on the topic. He had not. Here is how he explained how he arrived at his figures.
First of all, as I said, [there will be a] 40 percent cut in Medicaid, and one-third births are now paid for by Medicaid. And we’ve seen already that with the extension of things like Medicaid that we’ve already talked about [in] Massachusetts [under Romneycare], that it’s decreased the abortion rate. And so this is just a reversal of that logic. So if we have good evidence that it decreases abortion rates if we provide more extensive Medicaid coverage, and so forth.
I pressed him a little more on where his data came from. After all, if this really was just an extrapolation which assumes that births being paid for by Medicaid would become abortions after Medicaid was cut by 40 percent, then the number of abortions would increase by 13.2 percent, not between 6 percent and 8 percent. Here’s what Schneck told me:
The numbers are coming from . . . the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, so they’ve got all the numbers on Medicaid and their analysis of, you know, how the cuts are likely to play out. Now they don’t have an analysis of the abortion rates. Uh, that’s research that I think is still desperately needed to be done.
After the Charlotte event, the remark stuck with me. Surely he wouldn’t claim that abortions will increase under a Romney administration by a given percentage and then say that there isn’t any research on the subject. So I emailed to follow up. We exchanged a few notes back and forth. He said he was busy. He said he might write about
the subject himself at some point in the near future. After my third attempt to get him to explain how he arrived at his “6 percent to 8 percent,” he stopped answering.
It turns out that there has been some research on the topic. In 2010, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study by Patrick Whelan reporting that in the first year under Romneycare, which passed in 2006, the number of abortions in Massachusetts dropped by 1.5 percent. That suggests some support for the first part of Schneck’s theory, that increasing access to Medicaid-like subsidies for births reduces abortions.
But there was an obvious complication. Abortion had been generally declining in Massachusetts since its peak in 1979. Between 1979 and 2006—the year before Romneycare took effect—the annual number of abortions in Massachusetts had decreased by 45 percent. As Whelan admitted in his paper, it’s difficult to say how, exactly, medical subsidies influenced abortion behavior. When you look at almost any pair of consecutive years, you generally see a decline in abortions. Between 2003 and 2004, for instance, the number of abortions in Massachusetts fell by 5.3 percent. So you could just as easily suggest that Romneycare contributed to abortion by slowing its rate of decrease to a mere 1.5 percent over two years.
To Whelan’s credit, he understood the limitations of his finding. In his conclusion, he merely offered:
I believe it is reasonable to conclude that the possibility of some federal subsidization of overall care, for a fraction of the additional 31 million people who would be covered, would not mean a significant or even a likely increase in the number of abortions performed nationally.
Very little research turns on the exact question of what happens to abortion when public assistance for births is cut. Michael New, a University of Michigan-Dearborn professor who specializes in the economics and law of abortion, observed in National Review that there’s not a single peer-reviewed study that’s directly on point. But there is some research that comes at the question obliquely.
A 1996 study by William Niskanen for Cato Journal suggested that as welfare payments increased, so did abortion rates. Another study that year in the Journal of Health Economics looked at what happened to abortion rates in states which maximized their welfare benefits, and found that higher benefits either had no effect on abortion rates, or increased them slightly. One other study, a 2008 report from the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, found that increasing welfare spending had small, uneven effects on abortion—sometimes increasing it slightly and sometimes decreasing it slightly. Generally speaking, there seems to be no “income effect”—increasing resources does not reduce the demand for abortion.
There are more data coming at the question from another angle. In 2009 the Guttmacher Institute did a survey of the literature concerning what happens to abortion when public funding for it is restricted—as the speakers at the Democratic National Convention assured America it would be under a Republican president. There have been 38 studies on the subject and nearly all of the research suggests that if a Romney-Ryan administration reduced public funding for abortion, the number of abortions would greatly decline. Guttmacher found that when Medicaid funding for abortion was cut, anywhere between 18 percent and 37 percent of pregnancies that would have been abortions were converted to births.
In other words, the nation’s premier pro-choice think tank concluded the exact opposite of what Schneck suggests.
Of course, even the “40 percent cut in Medicaid” is nonsense, as Michael Fragoso pointed out writing for the Witherspoon Institute. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study Schneck cites admits that they are only presenting a theory about what a Mitt Romney budget might look like based on press releases and news stories. There is so little data to support his claim then, that Schneck might as well have predicted that a Romney administration would cause a 6 percent to 8 percent increase in unicorns.
There’s nothing particularly novel or shocking about a Catholic professor supporting President Obama, or cutting against the church hierarchy, or taking counterintuitive views of social science. Catholic academia, after all, is still academia.
The scandal of Stephen Schneck is really about Catholic University. Because the head of the public policy research unit at the church’s flagship university is hawking to the public a model based on no data and no research.
Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.