This week, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and IBIS Reproductive Health released a study on pro-life laws and public-health outcomes. It purports to show that the states most active in enacting pro-life policies fare poorly on a range of public-health metrics. Specifically, it claims the states that have enacted the most pieces of pro-life legislation score worse on separate metrics designed to measure both women’s and children’s overall health. This is the latest in a long line of studies attempting to show that pro-life laws adversely affect public-health outcomes. It has received sympathetic coverage from a number of media outlets including Mother Jones and HuffPost.
In reality, the CRR-IBIS study suffers from two significant methodological problems. First, this study analyzes just one year of data. As a result, it provides no evidence of how changes in pro-life policy affect various metrics of public health over time. Second, the study does not hold constant any confounding variables. For example, in recent years, the states most active in passing pro-life laws have been largely located in the South. Southern states tend to have high poverty rates, which are often correlated with poor public-health outcomes. It is therefore likely that those high rates of poverty — and not pro-life laws — are primarily responsible for these below-average public-health metrics.
The defunding of Planned Parenthood in Texas in 2011 created a veritable cottage industry of researchers trying to find evidence that pro-life laws cause public-health problems. Some of the research — such as the 2016 New England Journal of Medicine study on Medicaid births and the recent Journal of Public Health study on teen births and teen abortions — has been analytically rigorous. Unfortunately, media coverage of such studies is often misleading. Additionally, in some cases, researchers have overstated the effect of slight changes in public-health trends. In this case, because of its methodological weaknesses, the CRR-IBIS study provides absolutely no value to anyone interested in the way in which pro-life policies and legislation actually affect public-health trends.