Politics & Policy

Data Failure

Misreporting from the Guttmacher Institute.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, has done a lot of good and careful work over the years. The report it is releasing today is not among that work. The new report attempts to put social science behind Planned Parenthood’s agenda. It pretends that the latest studies all vindicate the view that parental-consent laws on abortion, for example, are “bad public policy.” In addition, it claims that abortion almost never has any adverse effects on women and suggests that the only way to reduce abortion rates is to increase access to contraception.

#ad#It isn’t necessary to be an expert on all the matters the report takes up to see that skepticism about these conclusions is warranted.

Start with the authors’ reasons for insisting that abortion be legal. Let’s ignore, as beneath our notice, the implicit argument that, since El Salvador has laws against abortion, enacting any anti-abortion laws here would make the U.S. like El Salvador. (Jack Hitt recently took the same tack in The New York Times Magazine.) Instead, let’s look at the report’s version of the argument about the bad old pre-Roe days here.

The report claims that there were “200,000 to 1.2 million” abortions a year in the 1950s and 1960s. The upper end of that estimate isn’t remotely plausible. The number of reported abortions in 1974, when Roe had made them all legal, was 899,000. The number in 1975 was 1 million. Are we really supposed to believe that the number of abortions fell when abortion became legal? (And then immediately started to climb for a decade and a half?) As the pro-life lawyer Clark Forsythe has pointed out, the relatively low number of legal abortions in California after its 1967 liberalization makes even the low end of the estimate look excessive.

The institute’s take on abortion’s effect on women’s health is also open to question. Look at the graph on page 13 of the report. The title of the graph reads “Deaths from abortion declined dramatically after legalization.” (They’re referring to maternal deaths.) But the graph itself shows that those deaths were dropping fast before any state had legalized abortion. And if the graph had started in the 1940s, it would have been even clearer that antibiotics, not liberal abortion laws, caused that decline in death rates.

The report’s statistics on contraception, unintended pregnancies, and abortion also tend to undercut its insistence on contraception as the only way to bring down the abortion rate. The rate of unintended pregnancies stayed flat from 1994 to 2001, and the use of contraception by those unmarried women thereport deems “at risk” of unintended pregnancies dropped. Yet the number of abortions also fell, which suggests that for one reason or other, an increased percentage of the women with unintended pregnancies were carrying their babies to term. It may very well be that the number of abortions would have dropped faster if the use of contraception had increased. (That must be true, at some level.) But it’s also possible that abortions have grown fewer because people have changed their attitude toward abortion, because anti-abortion laws have been enacted, and because teen sexual activity has decreased. The report does not consider these possibilities.

The institute’s authors go on to defend American womanhood from the charge (made by whom?) that it uses abortion as the birth control of first resort. That would be a false charge if it were made. But it is telling that in discussing it, the institute can’t bring itself to mention that 44 percent of all abortions are repeat abortions, and 18 percent repeat repeats–facts that arerelevant to whether some women have the attitude toward abortion that the report is trying hard to deny exists.

It’s when the report moves to policy recommendations that it gets shakiest. Regarding informed-consent laws, the authors write, “It is unethical to give biased or inaccurate information to women seeking abortion, and it is wrong to harass and shame them.” Okay. But they offer, as an example of this indignity, that “[s]ome states require [abortion] providers to show women pictures of fetuses at various stages of development.”

Parental-consent, and even parental-notification, laws are dismissed as unnecessary because “six in 10 teenagers who have an abortion report that at least one parent knew about their procedure”–which seems to suggest that parents may have been in the dark in 4 in 10 cases. Most people favor parental-consent laws, and that number won’t dissuade them. Nor will hearing that a 1992 study provides “no evidence to suggest parental involvement laws improve family communication or relationships.” It’s not as though most people support such laws as a way to improve “family relationships” in general. The reasons most people support those laws are sidestepped by the report, eager as it is to insinuate that social science, unaided by controvertible moral premises, somehow compels its conclusions.

Pro-life groups are disputing the report’s findings about the impact of abortion on women’s physical and mental health. I can’t say who’s right about the particular issues in dispute, but I can say that the report does not inspire confidence.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at National Review and author of The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, andthe Disregard for Human Life.

Ramesh Ponnuru — Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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