Since Texas removed Planned Parenthood’s state funding in 2011, the mainstream media have been on a constant search for evidence of a resulting public-health crisis. A new study by Analisa Packham, an economics professor at Miami University, has nicely served that purpose. Packham’s study purports to show that recent funding cuts to the Texas Family Planning Program have led to statistically significant increases in both teen abortions and teen births in the state. A number of mainstream media outlets have covered the study, including HuffPost, the Dallas Morning News, and the Houston Chronicle.
Packham’s study analyzes county-level data on teen births and teen abortions, and she compares both teen birth rates and teen abortion rates in a group of Texas counties to those of other counties around the country. Using regression analysis — holding constant various demographic and economic factors — she argues that cuts to Texas family-planning programs increased teen birth rates by 3.4 percent and increased teen abortion rates by 3.1 percent.
While Packham’s study is interesting and analytically rigorous, the media have missed the big picture. Based on the media coverage of this study, one would think that there was a teen-pregnancy epidemic in Texas. But the legislature cut funding to the Texas Family Planning program in 2011, and since then there have actually been large reductions in both the abortion rate and birth rate among minors in Texas. Specifically, between 2011 and 2014, the number of Texas minors who gave birth fell by over 24 percent. During the same period, the number of abortions performed on minor girls in Texas fell by 28 percent. This is the opposite of a public-health crisis.
If both abortions and births among Texas minors have fallen since 2011, why does Packham’s statistical model show a different result? There are a few possibilities. First, it is possible that demographically and economically similar counties outside of Texas might have experienced slightly larger declines in the teen birth rate. What’s more, Packham’s statistical model effectively analyzes percentage changes in both teen births and teen abortions. Some very low-population counties in Texas might have seen small aggregate increases but high percentage increases in either teen births or teen abortions, skewing the results.
Packham’s study has apparently been accepted for publication by the Journal of Health Economics. Once it is published, other researchers will be able to request the full data, which could give scholars helpful information about the effects of family-planning programs. Until then, and perhaps even afterward, the mainstream media will likely continue repeating the misleading narrative that Planned Parenthood–funding cuts caused a public-health crisis in Texas.