On Monday, the New York Times published an article arguing that recently enacted parental-involvement laws have been unable to reduce the incidence of abortion among teens. On its surface, the analysis looks convincing. In 6 states, the authors track the percentage of abortions among pregnancies for girls under 18 both before and after the passage of parental-involvement legislation. According to the data presented by the authors, the passage of legislation appears to do little to change this percentage. Furthermore, after the enactment of legislation, the childbearing decisions of minors continue to closely track the childbearing decisions of women ages 18 to 19–women who would not be directly affected by parental-involvement legislation.
However, there exist some significant shortcomings with the Times’s analysis. First, the authors only examine data in 6 of the approximately 12 states that have passed parental-involvement laws since the mid 1990s. Second, the authors obtain their abortion data from state health departments which tend to be unreliable. Academic researchers who are studying abortion almost always use data from either the Center for Disease Control (CDC) or the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) which have more reliable collecting and reporting mechanisms.
Finally, the authors’ decision to analyze the percentage of abortions among pregnancies is puzzling. Since relatively small numbers of teens are giving birth, this percentage can dramatically fluctuate, making the data difficult to properly analyze.
Furthermore, it is possible that the presence of parental-involvement laws may reduce abortions by not only changing the decisions of girls who are already pregnant, but also by reducing the likelihood that teen girls will get pregnant in the first place. However, analyzing the percentage of abortions among pregnancies will not lend any insights into the ability of parental-involvement laws to reduce abortions by changing the sexual behavior of minors.
Indeed, my own analysis of parental-involvement laws tells a considerably different story. I obtained data on teen abortions from the Center for Disease Control for every year until 2002, the last year for which data was available. Using population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, I calculated state data on teen abortion rates. Teen abortion rates give the approximate likelihood that a teen girl between the ages 13 to 17 will undergo an abortion that year. I then examined the teen abortion rate in the 6 states which the Times authors considered in their own analysis.
Now, I was unable to analyze Arizona’s parental-consent law because it took effect in 2003 and CDC data was unavailable for years following 2002. However, in three of the five other states analyzed by the Times reporters, I found significant reductions in the teen abortion rate after the passage of a parental-involvement law. In Texas, the teen abortion rate has fallen by 25 percent since the passage of the parental-notification law in 2000. Furthermore, both Virginia and South Dakota passed parental-notification laws in 1997. Since that time, the teen abortion rate in each state declined by over 33 percent.
It is true that in the remaining two states, Idaho and Tennessee, the passage of parental-involvement laws seems to have had little immediate short-term effect on each state’s teen abortion rate. However, additional information about each state provides some important context. Idaho already had one of the lowest teen abortion rates in the country prior to the passage of a parental-consent law. Similarly, Tennessee’s teen abortion rate fluctuated little in the years following the passage of its parental consent law in 2000. However, the Tennessee’s teen abortion rate fell sharply in the year before the passage of the law. It seems possible that Tennessee’s law might have played a role in preserving this decline.
There exists other evidence about the effectiveness of parental-involvement laws. In the early 1990s, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Nebraska all passed parental-involvement laws. By the end of the decade, the teen abortion rate had fallen in half in each of these states. My own research indicates that parental-involvement laws reduce the abortion rate among teens but have considerably less impact on the overall abortion rate. The fact that teen abortion rates decline while overall abortion rates remain fairly constant shows that these parental-involvement laws are likely responsible for the abortion declines and not broad shifts in values or mores that happen to be correlated with the passage of legislation. Finally, there exist academic studies in peer reviewed journals–ignored by the Times authors–that hold constant demographic and economic factors and provide solid statistical evidence that parental-involvement laws reduce the incidence of abortion among minors.
Indeed, it is unfortunate that the Times reporters did little to acknowledge academic researchers whose conclusions differ from theirs. However, readers of the Times should be used to politicized abortion coverage. The Times basically ignored America’s abortion rate decline during the 1990s. However, during the 2004 election, the New York Times, along with many other major media outlets, eagerly reported Glen Harold Stassen’s finding that abortions had increased during George W. Bush’s presidency. Yet when more comprehensive data was later released by the Alan Guttmacher Institute indicating that abortions had declined since President Bush’s inauguration, the Times along with other media outlets, failed to even report this finding, much less correct the record.
Interestingly, the Times authors, like Stassen, arrived at their conclusions by using data obtained from health departments from a small sample of states. Furthermore, the Times’s analysis like Stassen’s, marginalizes or ignores those with contradictory viewpoints. As a result, with more and better data about the impact of some of these parental-involvement laws on the way, one wonders how the Times will react to evidence that runs contrary to their original conclusions. Unfortunately, if the past is any indication, the pro-life movement should probably expect little from “The Paper of Record.”
–Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama.