A nudge on a hot button issue: Abortion

Josh Patashnik at The Plank comments on two Missouri proposals meant to discourage abortions.

The first is a ballot-initiative requiring doctors to psychologically evaluate women seeking abortions to assess whether their decisions have been influenced by external pressure. Doctors would ask: “Is someone else encouraging you to have this abortion? Do you want this abortion to satisfy your own needs or are you looking to do this to please someone else?”

The second is a recently passed state house bill, also in Missouri, requiring doctors to offer women seeking abortions a chance to view an ultrasound and feel the fetus’s heartbeat. Similar measures have been passed in other states.

Patashnik finds these laws “mostly pointless” and says he’d be “inclined to vote against them.” But he thinks they fit the model of libertarian paternalism as promoted in Nudge.

They seem like a relatively simple extension of the theory of government Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler set out in their new book: here, the government is nudging women to make sure they realize abortion is a complicated moral question and a step not to be taken lightly. Of course there’s a degree of paternalism involved–as there is when workers are pushed to save more in their 401(k)s than they ordinarily would–but Sunstein and Thaler make a persuasive case that slight, noncoercive paternalism can frequently lead to better outcomes.

Granted, it’s easy to go overboard, and some of the restrictions in this vein–like waiting periods–can be overly burdensome, depending on the specifics. But simply requiring women be offered the chance to view an ultrasound? That seems like an unobtrusive, reasonable way for the state to emphasize the nature of fetal life without constraining choice. This type of paternalism differs from Sunstein and Thaler’s other examples in that it only applies to women, but I don’t think that makes it, ipso facto, sexist, because the justification for it need not rest on any claim about women being uniquely impetuous. Everyone is impetuous now and then, which is the genesis of the entire Sunstein–Thaler approach. Were men capable of getting pregnant, I suspect this sort of nudge would be even more appropriate.

The problem, of course, is that while soft paternalism on abortion might be attractive as part of a compromise that preserves abortion rights but nudges women away from it, the people pushing initiatives like the one in Missouri mostly just view it as a temporary stop on the way to harder, coercive paternalism down the road. Under those circumstances, soft paternalism becomes far less appealing to liberals. So while in theory there’s real potential here for middle ground, in practice it’s unlikely to work that way.

It’s important to point out that nudging complements a libertarian paternalism outlook about public policy, but the two are distinct concepts. Libertarian paternalism is intended as means to help people make decisions that make them better off as defined or judged by themselves – not by a government or private authority. While the nudges cited in the book are intended to do exactly this, nudging takes place in variety of realms where the nudger’s explicit goal is to promote their own welfare (think of almost any consumer marketing strategy or retail store layout).

So whether either of these laws fits a libertarian paternalism paradigm depends on whether they promote a person’s interest as that person defines it. Although abortion is a controversial political subject, there is some consensus – in the range of 60-70 percent in surveys- among Americans that abortion rights should be protected, but that those protections should not be without restrictions. Unfortunately, it’s hard to say this kind of a consensus is strong enough to build a public policy from. Survey questions on what degree of restrictions people want is vague; 60-70 percent is a strong, but not overwhelming majority; Support for abstract abortion rights or restrictions does not necessarily carry over into actual personal experiences. So if, for instance, two-thirds of Americans said they did not support abortions in the final trimester, it would not be possible to draw inferences about how two-thirds of Americans would behave if faced with such a situation.

The general point is simply that while abortion may not be as divisive a subject as it seems when watching a cable news show, it is a divisive and unsettled subject. A choice architect may want to wade into the abortion policy debate with a nudge. A libertarian paternalist would be more cautious.

5 Responses to “A nudge on a hot button issue: Abortion”

  1. Rory Sutherland Says:

    Hold on a second. Someone who subsequently, regretfully, decides to have an abortion having first heard the baby’s heartbeat and viewed the ultrasound might be plagued by remorse and mental health problems for life. I am not sure the risk of creating lifelong misery is quite within the acceptable bounds of libertarian paternalism. Or am I missing something?

    Equally, by allowing abortion, the choice-architrecture of the unborn child is severely restricted.

    The requirement to check against external pressure seems good, however.

    • Geof Says:

      Where have all the libertarians gone in America? Why can people just have freedom of choice? Keep the government’s hands off our bodies!

  2. Organic Grog Says:

    I am certainly glad the right wing nut jobs are out for at least the next 4 years!

    Organic Grog

  3. Chicago Attorney Says:

    Women who wants abortion will have a second thought if they will hear their baby’s heartbeat and viewed the ultrasound. Abortion should not be a choice at all. Let your beby experience and see life.

  4. doidimaiscorporation Says:

    I see no problem in nudging people out of abortion, especially when said abortion will / would be done with public money.

    Even if the welfare of the mother who quit her initial abortion decision and now decides to have the baby is – arguably – affected for the worst, the general public wins by not paying the abortion.

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