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For the past fifty years, abortion opponents have fought for the power to ban abortion without little attention to how things might change when they won. The battle to make abortion illegal has been predicated on three nebulous assumptions about how abortion bans work. First, supporters believe banning abortion will deter it. Second, they hope bans will send a message about abortion—specifically, that abortion is immoral. And third, they expect bans to be competently implemented and enforced.

Drawing on empirical work from within and outside of the U.S., this Article offers an evidence-based assessment of each of these assumptions. Part One examines the question of deterrence by exploring findings from countries with relatively high and relatively low abortion rates. After explaining why restrictive abortion laws alone do not reduce aggregate abortion rates, I consider the matter of individual deterrence. By identifying those most likely to be deterred by U.S. abortion bans, I illustrate how abortion bans intersect with structural inequalities to disproportionately impact poor women of color and their children.

Part Two tests the idea that abortion bans send a message. I consider the bans’ meaning in context with U.S. laws and policies affecting families, exposing the difference between laws discouraging abortion, and those encouraging childbirth. Then, drawing from literature on the expressive function of the law, I assess the limits on the message-sending capacity of abortion bans in a society divided over abortion and over its commitment to children living in poverty.

Part Three turns to the expectation that abortion bans will be competently enforced, noting the legitimacy struggles arising from law enforcement patterns, along with the administrative challenges inherent in overseeing the various exceptions to abortion bans.

This Article concludes by considering why the consequences and limitations of abortion bans should matter to supporters and opponents, alike.

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