Politics & Policy

Democrats Are Using Misleading Claims about Abortion to Scrap the Hyde Amendment

Former House Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.) speaks during a hearing in Washington, D.C., March 27, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
To fulfill their long-sought goal, Democrats are turning to discredited studies about who gets abortions and why.

Before her retirement last year, former congresswoman and House Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.) said it was her “fervent wish” that Congress remove “once and for all” the Hyde amendment. Hyde and similar riders, which for decades enjoyed bipartisan support, have prevented taxpayer funding of abortion-on-demand. Hyde, Lowey said, “deserves to be in the dustbin of history.”

The current chair, Representative Rosa DeLauro (D., Conn.), has promised to make good on Lowey’s wish. Appropriations requests are due in the House by the end of this month; President Biden’s budget is expected shortly after. The president has already signed one significant piece of legislation that rejected Hyde. The Hyde-free “American Rescue Plan” signified a turn away from the long-standing consensus that taxpayers should not be forced to fund abortions. Emboldened by this move, Democratic leaders in Congress are targeting a repeal of the Hyde amendment ban on abortion funding (a policy that has saved more than 2.4 million lives) by appeals to deeply flawed and misleading research.

For instance, in a recent congressional hearing, DeLauro read an intimidating list of alleged negative and even deadly outcomes for women who sought abortions but were “turned away.” Her source for those claims was The Turnaway Study by Diana Greene Foster. Foster is research director of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, an advocate of loosening all legal limits on abortion.

The Turnaway Study is easily summarized. In Foster’s telling, her data set is so superior that every other study can be ignored. Moreover, her claim is data conclusively prove that (a) women rarely regret their abortions, (b) abortion carries no risks to women, and (c) the real danger to women is any law that slows or inhibits quick and easy access to abortion, including late-term abortions.

For ideologues, Foster’s grandiose claims are sufficient to hail her Turnaway Study as definitive. For anyone who cares about good science, The Turnaway Study is an egregious example of ideologically driven junk science.

The first fatal flaw is that it is based on a nonrandom, self-censoring sample of volunteers. It is nonrandom because abortion-facility counselors selectively chose whom to invite. It is self-censored because 69 percent of women refused to participate, even when promised up to $500. Plus, 55 percent of the minority who did participate subsequently dropped out.

Other studies have shown that the women least likely to agree to be interviewed after an abortion are those who most anticipate negative feelings. They self-censor precisely to avoid arousal of those negative feelings.

Worse, Foster never mentions her embarrassingly low participation rate in her journal abstracts or news releases. The first several studies published using Foster’s data also omitted these details. Only when peer reviewers, such as myself, demanded more background on participation rates were they finally published.

Elsewhere, Foster dismisses the low response rate because other studies initiated at abortion facilities also have low participation rates. But the proper reference point should be good studies, not other poor studies. For example, surveys of women receiving mastectomies often have participation rates of over 90 percent and many journals don’t consider publishing a study with less than a 60 percent participation rate.

Despite this sample bias, Foster garnered international headlines for The Turnaway Study’s most famous finding: 95 percent of women remain happy with their decision three years after their abortions.

But once again, this claim doesn’t survive close inspection.

The actual question posed was: “Given your situation, was the decision to have an abortion the right decision for you?” Foster tries to leverage this “decision satisfaction” into the argument that 19 out of 20 feel they benefited from their abortions. But that’s a distortion of a single yes-or-no question.

Buried in the details of Foster’s results are these additional facts: 66 percent of the same women reported regret, 63 percent guilt, 43 percent anger, and 74 percent sadness. In addition, 39 percent had symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Nineteen percent of these women directly attributed their traumatic reactions to their abortions.

In another disconnect, Foster argues it is harmful to deny women late-term abortions. But her own data actually revealed that women who were denied third-trimester procedures did not experience any lasting harm. Instead, 43 percent reported feeling happy about being turned away, 60 percent were happy about their pregnancy, and their overall levels of sadness and guilt were lower than those of women who had abortions.

In short, The Turnaway Study is advocacy science at its worst. At a time when the utmost value has been placed on “following the science,” Democrats should stop relying on this nonrandom, biased study design. That they are doing so reveals a stark truth: There is not even a single study, much less a body of studies, demonstrating that abortion is the direct cause of any measurable benefits to women. There are plenty of studies demonstrating a link with physical and mental-health risks, but none that show any lasting measurable benefits, especially for low-income women.

Overturning the Hyde amendment will not help women. It will only make it easier to pressure low-income women into unwanted and unsafe abortions.

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