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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Spinning Bad News into Good

My brother likes to say, "Figures don't lie, but liars do figure." I usually tell my students, "Numbers don't lie - but they generally don't tell the whole story, either." This falls into line with the famous quote, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics."

So everyone is going to try and spin the soon-to-be-released statistics on pregnancy and abortion.

There is much to celebrate - such as the fact that the abortion rate is down almost two percent since 1995. For the last year studied, the Guttmacher Institute found that around 24% of all pregnancies in the United States are ended through legal abortion. As the article shows, anti-abortion groups are crowing:

"I don't think there's any mystery here," said Susan Wills, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The new data underscores that more women are turning away from abortions, even when it's a pregnancy they don't initially want, said Wills, associate director for education in the Conference's Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.

"It shows a real pro-life shift," she said.


There is a false connection between lower abortion rates and the assertion that "more women are turning away from abortions". There is also a lot of mixed news for those who are concerned about more than just the rate of abortions. I'll come back to that in a minute, but first, let's look at whether or not women are actually "turning away from abortions".

Historically, the abortion rate (i.e., the percentage of abortions ended by abortion) peaked in 1979-80 at just below 30%. It hovered around 21% just after the change of the millenium, and is now rising again. If we look at the data over time, then the average abortion rate since 1980 is around 25%. The drop to 24% is the statistical equivalent of a rounding error - just a squiggle in the chart.

Then there is this little tidbit tucked away in the report:

As much as 43% of the decline in abortion between 1994 and 2000 can be attributed to the use of emergency contraception.


The difference in the abortion rate between 1994 and 2000 is 2.4% - which means that at least 1% of the total drop was due to the use of the "morning after pill". Since most of the really radical anti-abortion groups consider these to have been abortions, then they would have to add them back into the statistics before claiming that a "pro-life shift" has occurred - which would put us right back at the 25% mark. In case you're wondering what the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' official position on the "morning after pill", you can find it here.

It's important to understand that this is just "abortion rates" that are being discussed - not actual numbers of abortions. Please forgive my continued inability to post pdf files as links, but the information I'm about to cite all comes from the Allan Guttmacher Institute - the same source as the numbers listed above. That, at least, provides some stability.

The actual number of abortions in the United States has declined slightly - to an estimated 1,293,000 in 2002 from 1,370,000 in 1996. That is a statistically significant decline and it should be celebrated by people on all sides of the issue. However, it is not likely due to a "real pro-life shift". The use of the "morning after pill" mentioned above would account for slightly more than 33,000 of the 77,000 per year reduction. That is a very slight decline upon which to base a statement concerning a significant shift in public opinion.

There are several confounding trends that come out in the study. One thing to keep in mind, when considering the decrease in the number of abortions, is that the number of pregnancies has dropped. It doesn't take a huge jump in imagination to figure that at least some of the unwanted pregnancies that would have been aborted are also in that category of pregnancies that didn't occur. If half of the remaining abortions simply never occurred, then that means we've only seen a drop of 22,000 abortions. That's still good news, but no sweeping change.

As well, the manner in which Guttmacher researchers determine if a pregnancy is unwanted is flawed, in my opinion. The question, "Right before you became pregnant, did you yourself want to have a baby at any time in the future?" is inherently biased. A girl of 15 who wanted to have a baby when she was 30 would answer "Yes", and thus be listed as "mistimed". Only a woman who never wanted to have a baby could honestly answer "No" to that question. A better way to ask it would be, "Were you planning to have a baby when you became pregnant?" There is a vast difference between a pregnancy that is unwanted, and one that is simply not planned for.

The trend uncovered by the researchers indicates, to me, that the question might not be understood - at least by some of the respondents. Why would more teens never plan on having a child than older women who are, for the most part, closing in on the end of their childbearing years? I would guess, from my personal contact with people, that most young people would end up classifying their pregnancy as mistimed - maybe by ten or twenty years - than unwanted, if you use their criteria.

The bad news - for everyone - is that more unwanted pregnancies are occurring and especially among teens. Further, more children are being born into single-parent households.

More unwanted pregnancies occuring in younger women who have limited or no means of financial support is nothing to celebrate - and it certainly doesn't qualify as a shift against abortion. If anything, it shows that there remains a lot of work to do in teaching women control of their bodies and their ability to determine when - and if - they become pregnant.

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