Bryan Caplan  

Nudge and Abortion

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Here's my ongoing Twitter exchange with Richard Thaler:

Thaler: As and I say repeatedly in Nudge, the goal is to improve outcomes for people AS JUDGED BY THEMSELVES, not policy maker's taste

Me: . So what existing *hard* paternalism does your stated goal imply should be abolished?

Thaler: I would say most drug laws, all prohibitions of gays, abortion, many immigration laws, ...

Me: . Glad to hear about drug laws. But the other laws you name allegedly prevent harm to *others* not harm to self, no?

Still, Thaler's reply got me thinking about abortion.  The main pro-life argument, of course, is that abortion is murder, and murder is harmful to the victim.  But on reflection, there is also a simple libertarian paternalist case against abortion.

Key starting point: Parents very rarely regret having children - even initially "unwanted" children.  This is not mere status quo bias: Most childless adults eventually regret not having children.  As I've said about parenthood before, "Buyer's remorse is rare; non-buyer's remorse is common."  Implication: Most women who want to terminate their pregnancies would probably change their minds after their babies are born.  Most won't go through the next eighteen years thinking, "I wish I'd gotten that abortion."

Armed with these facts, an old-fashioned hard paternalist would simply ban most abortions: "You'll thank us later."  What about the libertarian paternalist?  He'd want to achieve the same result - discouraging abortion - with subtler means.  Instead of prohibiting abortion he'd want to nudge pregnant women into carrying their fetuses to term.  Some candidate nudges:

1. Waiting periods: Abortions must be scheduled at least a week in advance.  This gives women time to reconsider their decision, so they don't abort rashly.

2. An opt-out rule for counseling.  The libertarian paternalist could schedule all women who want an abortion for a pre-procedure session with a psychologist - or maybe just volunteer mothers who previously considered abortion.  Women who don't want counseling would have to explicitly refuse to participate.

3. Inconvenient locations: Abortions have to be performed in remote rural hospitals.  Women who definitely want abortions will make the extra effort, but more ambivalent women will decide to keep their babies.

4. Deny government funding for abortion.  If the government thinks that a procedure is generally ill-advised, the first step is to refrain from encouraging it.  If people want to pay for it out of their own pocket, they're still free to do so.

As an actual libertarian, rather than a libertarian paternalist, I support only nudge #4.  But it's hard to see why a staunch libertarian paternalist would object to any of them.  (Before you appeal to the slippery slope, remember that Thaler has repeatedly minimized this danger).  Despite all the nudges, a woman who really wants an abortion would remain free to get one.  The upside, though, is that well-crafted nudges would sharply reduce the number of women who abort children they would have eventually come to love.  It's seems like libertarian paternalists should jump right on board.

Of course, I might just be failing the Ideological Turing Test.  So tell me: Why would a libertarian paternalist oppose any of the pro-life nudges I suggest?



COMMENTS (40 to date)
This One Needs To Be Anonymous writes:

#1 and #3 put paternalism ahead of liberty and are therefore blanket unacceptable.

Forcing (and that's the key word: force) people to endure a waiting period is the same as forcing them to acquire a license or permit. All of these are simply ways of denying our rights a little bit at a time.

Similarly forcing (there's that word again...) medical professionals to offer their services in state-approved locations is of the same species of partial rights-denial.

#2 seems acceptable. I chafe against it because I chafe against all paternalism but it's hard to characterize it as a rights-denial.

#4 I endorse for the same reasons you do.

I see pursuing any of #1-#3 as a net negative however, because people want abortions, and I never see discouraging people from getting what they want as advancing the good of society (if we must use those words).

I find your arguments un-convincing but I may be biased. So far (my son turns 2 this week) I regret having had a child, and my wife (with my agreement) aborted a second (unintentional this time) pregnancy, due to our exasperation with parenthood and also a major danger posed to her health by childbirth.

There is a severe social stigma against saying you regret having children. Therefore any survey data on the subject is highly suspect.

WRD writes:

Don't disagree strongly with any particular suggestion, but the list is incomplete.

What about options that "nudge" toward birth control instead? After all, shouldn't we respect today's decision to avoid childbirth as much as we respect tomorrow's lack of regret?

Can't we put both options on the table?

(As an aside, we should also be working to ensure these decisions are made with better information, i.e. reduce the information gap. So let's also put repeal of just-say-no sex ed on the table, too.)

shecky writes:

Doesn't take a libertarian paternalist to support any of those nudges. Plain old paternalists could easily support all four.

Max writes:
Why would a libertarian paternalist oppose any of the pro-life nudges I suggest?

The answer seems so obvious that I feel like this must be a trick question. It's because they're not pro-life, isn't it?

And of course, when Thaler says "the goal is to improve outcomes for people AS JUDGED BY THEMSELVES, not policy maker's taste," well, I'll be generous and grant that it may be true of him, but it certainly isn't true of most "libertarian" paternalists. The goal is to improve outcomes for people as judged by the tastes of policy makers. How could it ever be any other way?

Brian writes:

I agree that a libertarian would not support any legal restrictions on abortion, so 1 - 3 are probably out. Whether a libertarian paternalist would support them depends on what his/her libertarian/paternalist split is. (That is, how strongly does one associate with each term.)

I also agree that 4 should be supported by all libertarians.

I would also argue, however, that libertarians have good reasons to be both pro-choice and anti-abortion. First, every abortion eliminates a potential future partner of free exchange, and that limits the freedom of all to engage in that exchange. In the U.S. alone, over a million abortions per year represents a huge opportunity cost. Second, if the woman really doesn't want to have a baby right now, it would be better for her not to get pregnant. Money spent on eliminating the mistake is money not spent on more productive things. More huge opportunity costs. Bastiat would be spinning in his grave.

So what's a libertarian to do? 4 for sure. Have no restrictions on birth control? Of course. Remove all government support (i.e. $) for all organizations that perform elective abortions? Maybe.

But other options carry at least a whiff of paternalism. Encourage better education in the use of birth control? Fund public ad campaigns to encourage women to either keep their babies or give them up for adoption? Encourage better education on the development of the embryo/fetus? Provide all abortion seekers with copies of Bryan's book on selfish reasons to have kids? Provide financial rewards for abortion seekers who choose to keep their babies? The list is endless, depending on how paternalistic one is willing to get.

Sol writes:

I know this seems to set off a bunch of taboos, but wouldn't an interesting and somewhat libertarian nudge be to allow people to pay other people for babies? Right now most people adopting from foreign countries are essentially paying large amounts of money and time to get a foreign baby. It seems like allowing X to financially support Y's pregnancy and then adopt the resulting baby would be a lovely nudge that would be both pre-choice *and* pro-life.

Steve Z writes:

The truth is that there is no bright line whatsoever between hard paternalism and soft paternalism. If drugs are illegal, I have the option of buying them, taking them, and possibly going to jail. If, in Sunstein and Thaler's world, they are legal, but I have to hand in an essay and wait in line, I am still being punished, only to a lesser extent and I am being forced to make a prepayment.


Once it is understood that libertarian paternalism is functionally no different from a light punishment, the work kind of falls apart. Why not just impose a light tax and spare the waste of making people endure a queue?

ProbablyWrong writes:

Three comments:

1) The natalist caucus should advocate for pro-fertility paternalism, not for anti-choice paternalism.

2) Please define abortion.

3) Regarding #4, as long as the government pays for healthcare, including for surgical procedures that are self-referred by the physician, I see no compelling reason to treat abortion as any different from any other situation where a doctor performs a surgery to undo the consequences of a lifestyle decision. (Knee replacements, ...)

ProbablyWrong writes:

Three comments:

1) The natalist caucus should advocate for pro-fertility paternalism, not for anti-choice paternalism.

2) Please define abortion.

3) Regarding #4, as long as the government pays for healthcare, including for surgical procedures that are self-referred by the physician, I see no compelling reason to treat abortion as any different from any other situation where a doctor performs a surgery to undo the consequences of a lifestyle decision. (Knee replacements, ...)

Frank Ashe writes:

Dr Caplan,

Your comment on buyers remorse is very one sided. We also need to see the number of women who have had an abortion and have no regrets.

Plus your logic is incomplete - if there is no "buyers remorse" for children then we should encourage women to have as many as possible - they won't regret it.

You are also confusing not having remorse with positive preferences. While not regretting any existing child, quite a lot of women with many children wish they had limited their family size.

It seems you are cherry-picking your arguments to reach an already chosen answer.

Hana writes:

How about a non-libertarian nudge.

On average every person born increases the GNP. On average every person born contributes to the tax base. Therefore terminating a potential taxpayer, GNP grower, is a drain on society.

Rather than subsidizing, or even ignoring abortion, it should be taxed, and taxed heavily. Each aborted tax payer reduces the pool of money for my future retirement entitlements. We can calculate the future contributions of each aborted tax payer. That should be the fee.

@Brian, where exactly in the libertarian code of ethics does it say there can be no limitations on abortion. I must have missed those libertarian discussions regarding the sanctity of abortion. If libertarians actually believe in the 'natural rights' of the individual, at what point do those 'rights' arrive? While it is culturally fashionable to assign no rights to the unborn, that does not obviate a critical thinking libertarian from considering when those rights actually become extant.

If I am a 4 month pregnant mother, and you are the cause of a car accident that results in the death of the fetus, do I as the mother get to decide it was manslaughter? Or if the state decides, if 6 months is not manslaughter, but 8 months is, then where does your statement that 'a libertarian would not support any legal restrictions on abortion' rest. The death of the not yet born, should not be so casually set aside.

I am merely suggesting an alternative nudge.

I think you're mistaken with regard to 3) and 4). Neither of those counts as nudges since they chance incentives that would effect rational agents as well.

Ben writes:
But the other laws you name allegedly prevent harm to *others* not harm to self, no?
You seem to have implied (presumably accidentally) that being gay is a harmful activity. You might like to clarify that.
Jared writes:
You seem to have implied (presumably accidentally) that being gay is a harmful activity. You might like to clarify that.
I think the key word there is allegedly. I read this to include adoption laws, for instance. "Gay people make inferior parents, so we should ban adoption by gay couples because it will harm children." It isn't Caplan saying that, it's the proponents of the laws.

If your reading is right, then Caplan must also be read to be saying that immigration hurts a country's residents, which I don't think he actually believes.

Tracy W writes:

An obvious counter-argument is that a woman who really wants an abortion will risk her health to get an illegal one if legal ones are not readily available. #1 and #2 strikes me as more defensible a nudge than #3, but that may be status quo bias as I think they're, or something similar, both already in place in NZ. (Note I'm a woman and currently very pregnant with my second).

Frank A writes:

As an adoptive parent I would strongly nudge adoption. This would solve a few problems - 1) the child would be born, 2) if the mother (father) changed their mind and wanted to keep it they could, 3) if not, the child would enter a home where it was wanted. Of course there are tradeoffs - 1) the mother has to actually carry the baby to term and give birth, 2) there may be instances where the baby is not adopted. Overall, a nudge in that direction keeps the baby alive ... "ADOPTION not ABORTION"

Finch writes:

@WRD
> What about options that "nudge" toward birth
> control instead?
@Frank Ashe
> if there is no "buyers remorse" for children then
> we should encourage women to have as many as
> possible - they won't regret it.

Yes, if you take seriously the research Bryan describes, and you're in the nudging business, you should discourage birth control and generally encourage having more children than people otherwise would have. Nudge away from abortion and nudge _away_ from birth control. Bryan's nudge is based on the good outcomes from having the child weighed against the bad outcomes from not having the child, and has nothing to do with any evilness of killing the baby. So the same reasoning should apply to birth control as abortion, because it's not the mechanism of preventing the birth that's important in this framing.

As to the libertarian position on abortion, I don't see that libertarianism provides a natural position on the issue. The question of when exactly you consider a person to have rights (potentiality, conception, second trimester, birth, 2 years old, 21 years old, after death) is a funny one without an obvious answer.

@pperrin writes:

In all this you seem to be addressing access to a medical service, not addressing pregnancy/termination itself.

If you weren't paying for/towards the abortion would it be any of your business at all?

Having a libertarian bent, I object to abortion (taking a life), but also respect a womans rights over her own body.

Accordingly, I would not have abortion, but would allow early induction/caesarian. With all effort made to preserve the life of the baby.

The mother has her non-pregnant body returned to her, the baby has an opportunity for survival.

If baby dies - all done, if it survives it would be available for adoption and the mother may, one day, have some hard questions to answer.

José writes:

Number 3 seems like a significant cost/obstacle. Nudges are supposed to help you overcome bias without significant difficulties (checking a box, for example, is not so hard).

Tom West writes:

Indeed, Frank Ashe has it right.

Bryan's thought experiment suggests that the choice is having an abortion vs. not having children.

Since most women who have abortions either have or go on to have children, Bryan's premise is patently invalid.

In fact, since I suspect the vast majority of women who have abortions do not regret them, the nudge would be *against* the stated goal.

Finch writes:

> Since most women who have abortions either have or
> go on to have children, Bryan's premise is
> patently invalid.

This is true only if abortion doesn't reduce the number of children the mother would have had, which seems unlikely. In any event, it is an empirical question. Hypothetically if it was the other way around, say because having aborting a child (say, at 24 early in your law career) would allow you to subsequently have more children than you would have if you hadn't aborted, then you'd want to nudge towards abortion. But I find it a little hard to believe that's the normal case.

Bryan isn't saying anything about the morality of abortion. He's saying having more babies makes the mother better off, even if she isn't so sure at the time of abortion, therefore you want to nudge her in the direction of making a decision she herself will get more utility from measured over her whole life.

This whole thing is a little hard to follow because its an issue normally dripping with moral sentiment, and Bryan has dodged most of the morass to concentrate on one interesting aspect of it.

Finch writes:

Bryan's argument (hypothetical, since it doesn't seem he's too convinced about nudging) is:

more children = better for mother
therefore, nudge towards more children.

Marc F Cheney writes:
the goal is to improve outcomes for people AS JUDGED BY THEMSELVES, not policy maker's taste

Forget the abortion stuff. I got completely hung up on this point.

If Ms. A judges for herself that taking action B will yield some desired outcome C, why does she have to be "nudged" at all?

What he must mean is either that (1) Ms. A hasn't actually judged for herself that action B would yield the desired outcome C, but would if she were wiser, or (2) Ms. A has judged for herself that action B would yield outcome C, but she doesn't actually desire outcome C, but she would desire it if she were wiser.

John writes:

@Marc F Cheney, the metric used by "nudgers" is:

If the vast majority of people who take action B later regret it, then we should nudge Ms. A away from action B even if she currently desires it.

I'm no paternalist, just a libertarian, but the moral logic here is not totally unsound. Kids want to eat candy and never brush their teeth but, if allowed, will invariably regret it. It's ideologically convenient but willfully blind to suggest that adults of our species have none of these sorts of incredibly harmful desires. When I was a smoker, I'd often regret smoking a cigarette when I wasn't even done with it yet.

Bob Charles writes:

This paternalist argument is based on minimizing self-reported regret. It's unlikely that people are being particularly rational when they introspect on this. One of the most common regrets of people on their deathbed is that they worked so hard. Should the state crack down on overtime and 40-hour workweeks? Secondly, a principle of maximizing life-satisfaction would seem to be preferable over regret-minimization. And most studies show that having children makes people less happy.

I would have thought that economists/libertarians would prefer revealed preference as a measure of satisfaction over self-reports.

Fine-grained access to the neural correlates of well-being are going to be just around the corner, given advances in neuroscience. Maybe the paternalists should hold off until a more objective measure of life satisfaction comes around.

0x0077 writes:

Are any of these really nudges? Maybe the concept of "nudges" has changed or I never understood it, but I thought the whole idea was that when you must make a choice otherwise arbitrarily about the default status of a voluntary program, you should put some thought into which one is the default. The quintessential example that I always hear about is organ donation, where currently you have to check a box on your license application to opt-in to the program, so changing it to be an opt-out program will capture more people who are otherwise indifferent. In that case, it's just a question of do you ask the question of, "Can we have your organs?" to "Do you want to keep your organs?"

Moving abortion clinics far away, removing subsidies (which I'm in favor of in general on non-paternalist grounds anyway and waiting periods are all additional actions to be taken, not just "here's the default value". The second one might count as a nudge if the program isn't specifically created to do the nudging - i.e. if there is always counseling service available and the question changes from, "Do you want counseling?" to "Do you want to waive your counseling session?"

Rob writes:

@Brian:

I would also argue, however, that libertarians have good reasons to be both pro-choice and anti-abortion. First, every abortion eliminates a potential future partner of free exchange, and that limits the freedom of all to engage in that exchange.

Let me play the devil's advocate here and point out that childhood - at least early childhood - is fundamentally nonconsensusal. So every abortion eliminates an inevitable victim of nonconsensual distress and violation.

(Those who sugar-coat childhood should come and listen to my neighbor infant's screams every day. If life is a gift, then kids are forced to pay dearly for getting it.)

MingoV writes:

The label libertarian paternalism refers to a system in which the paternalists shove people toward the "optimal" choice and put hurdles in front of "bad" choices. Because there is only shoving and hurdle placement instead of coercion, this paternalistic system is (incorrectly) called libertarian.

Libertarian paternalism is an oxymoron. Libertarians do not treat adults as if they were children.

There is no consensus among libertarians about abortion. My view is simple: If the fetus can live outside the womb, then abortion is murder. If the fetus cannot live outside the womb, then abortion is removal of unwanted tissue. Thus, I would disagree with 1-3 and agree with 4.

Marc F Cheney writes:

@John: kids don't "judge for themselves" that tooth-brushing leads to a desired outcome. That's my point. I think Thaler is being disingenuous.

Floccina writes:

I think that planned parenthood came about in large part due to fear of a population explosion. It is therefore misanthropic. Because the fear of population growth has been diffused if planned parenthood did not exist I think that you could not get it started today.

shecky writes:

Planned parenthood implemented by governments is misanthropic. Whether Chinese Style, or Ceausescu-era Romanian style.

Planned parenthood as it came to be in modern USA and most of the western world differs in that it is voluntary and generally left for the person involved to implement. As such, I find it difficult to paint as misanthropic the desire to regulate one's fertility as one sees fit. And I have serious doubts that any significant percentage of these practitioners utilize birth control for fear of overpopulation.

Ironically, for all its roots in population control and eugenics, planned parenthood ended up being enthusiastically adopted by relatively prosperous people who came to the not surprising conclusion that being able to choose if and when to have children is an ability much better to exercise than not.

Addison writes:

Bryan, don’t you think that women who are considering getting an abortion are much more likely to end up being in that minority of parents who regret having children? I think that increases the odds of regret to a lot higher than 9%...

Also, it is wrong to equate getting an abortion with having no kids at all. Theoretically one might run the risk of never having kids later on, but the most likely and important issue is that it is about timing. That woman probably wants to have children when she is 28 rather than 18, not get an abortion and never have any. “Having a child RIGHT NOW would ruin my career and make my life (and probably the 2.5 kids I want to have?) so much worse than if I started having kids later!”

So buyer’s remorse is probably a lot more likely than you are implying, especially within this demographic, and non-buyer’s remorse is probably not very relevant.

Finch writes:

MingoV said:
> My view is simple: If the fetus can live outside
> the womb, then abortion is murder.

This is a pretty common view, with interesting implications. While it means you view abortion as murder after about 20 weeks (which might be a little early for some people), the rapid rise of neonatal care technology means that in 50 or 100 years, you'll view all abortion as murder.

I don't know if there's a medical incentive to develop the technology, but since very early stage embryos can be cultured outside the body, I wonder if we could extract and preserve them before some stage and thereby accidentally close the window from the other end?

I've argued in other contexts that easy, reliable birth control will eventually make all pregnancies "wanted." I imagine such a society will deeply frown on abortion, and may look back on our era with horror, missing the subtlety of the moral decisions that got made.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I think that abortion needs to be looked at as birth control, although clearly a very severe form of it.

Bryan has pointed out the high level of genetic influence on the outcome of children. Abortion, like other birth controls, could be a means to assure that resources are not wasted on procreation with those who are not deemed genetically adequate. Instead, one may be seeking "Mr. Right" but settling for "Mr. Right Now". Why one is having sex with these people in the first place is a larger question, but there you are.

Also birth control relates to timing of children in the acquisition and utilization of human capital. Is it a better result for you and your child for the child to be born in the middle of college, when it could very well dramatically reduce your lifetime earning potential.

Bryan's genetic influence research aside, there are clearly birth timing issues that influence children. For example, twin studies found that growing up in a single-parent family predicted depression in adulthood even with genetic resemblance controlled statistically. Waiting until marriage to have children may be a good idea. Of course using pre-procreative birth control or not having sex are also excellent methods to accomplish this, I can tell you that many reasonable and intelligent women I know have had "accidents" before marriage and while during college requiring abortion.

Also "selective reduction" in situations with multiple fetuses is another situation where abortion may lead to lower risks of severe negative outcomes for children. With more older mothers and fertility technology, this is happening more and more as accidental triplets and quads show up, although no one wants to admit it and physicians who practice it must do so in secret to avoid public controversy.

It should also be noted that there are many parts of the US South where those "paternalistic nudges" are in place, and finding a legal abortion clinic is almost impossible.

Finch writes:

> With more older mothers and fertility technology,
> this is happening more and more as accidental
> triplets and quads show up, although no one wants
> to admit it and physicians who practice it must do
> so in secret to avoid public controversy.

Liability is a major component in these calculation. The physician doesn't get sued for the abortions, but does get sued if something goes wrong in the pregnancy (often whether or not they had anything to do with it).

But it's wrong to say there's anything secret about it. The vigor with which physicians push reduction (some have "nothing more than twins or find another doctor" rules) is a significant factor in why women pregnant with multiples choose one doctor over another. Which doctor has which attitude is well-known in mother-of-multiple circles.

Tom West writes:

I've argued in other contexts that easy, reliable birth control will eventually make all pregnancies "wanted."

Not until we reach a point where a woman or girl having sex doesn't face social condemnation.

Effective birth control requires you to acknowledge that you plan to have sex, and many of the same people against abortion are also quite ready to condemn those who might otherwise take measures against having to have one.

Finch writes:

@Tom West
You could argue that all pregnancies (save rape) are voluntary today since birth control is cheap, effective, easy to use, and easy to get, but I think that's a stretch. I was thinking about a future where birth control defaults to always-on via some medical implant that manages your health.

MingoV writes:
Finch writes:

MingoV said:
> My view is simple: If the fetus can live outside
> the womb, then abortion is murder.

This is a pretty common view, with interesting implications. While it means you view abortion as murder after about 20 weeks (which might be a little early for some people), the rapid rise of neonatal care technology means that in 50 or 100 years, you'll view all abortion as murder.

That is correct. Fetal incubators could eliminate abortions and increase adoptions (since unwanted fetuses are likely to be abandoned). Both are worthy goals.
Finch writes:

> That is correct. Fetal incubators could eliminate
> abortions and increase adoptions (since unwanted
> fetuses are likely to be abandoned). Both are
> worthy goals.

That's a refreshingly straight answer for a blog commenter.

At that point, will you view failure to conceive a child you could have conceived as murder? Is it the child imposing demands on the mother (even though the whole thing was voluntarily entered into by the mother, usually) the thing that makes termination okay? Then why can't you terminate toddlers?

I'm not trying to be a jerk here - my own views are muddy. I don't think I've got this figured out so I'm not trying to push a view on anyone. I vacillate between thinking "uh oh, it looks like potential people should count as people," and "maybe murder isn't so bad." Both of those positions leave me pretty uncomfortable and I'm left feeling unresolved.

Tom West writes:

I was thinking about a future where birth control defaults to always-on via some medical implant that manages your health.,

Well, we've been already playing with "always on" birth control via implants, etc. And we've seen immense push-back from the substantial segments of society where that's seen as "giving teenagers permission to have sex".

You just have to see the resistance to universal administration of the HPV vaccines. (Some is long-term health concern, but a lot is lightly coded "teenagers shouldn't be having sex anyway")

So sadly, I don't think this is a technological issue, but a social one.

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