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The Biography of a Bad Statistic

Abortions rising under Bush? Not true. How that false claim came to be -and lives on.

May 25, 2005

Modified: May 26, 2005

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Summary

 

Politicians from Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to Howard Dean have recently contended that abortions have increased since George W. Bush took office in 2001.

This claim is false. It's based on an an opinion piece that used data from only 16 states. A study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute of 43 states found that abortions have actually decreased. Update, May 26: The author of the original claim now concedes that the Guttmacher study is "significantly better" than his own.

Analysis

 

A number of politicians and organizations have been circulating an interesting and surprising idea: that abortions have gone up under George W. Bush’s watch.  The claim is repeated by supporters of abortion rights as evidence that Bush's anti-abortion policies have backfired, or at least been ineffective. 

But the claim is untrue. In fact, according to the respected Alan Guttmacher Institute, a 20-year decline in abortion rates continued after Bush took office, as shown in this graph

    

Source: Alan Guttmacher Institute, "Trends in Abortion in the United States "

 

Here's the story of how a false idea took hold.

The Birth of a Bad Statistic

The claim that abortions are rising again can be traced back to an opinion piece by Glen Harold Stassen, an ethics professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. His article originally appeared in a web and e-mail publication of Sojourners, a Christian magazine, in October 2004. Several other outlets, including the Houston Chronicle, also ran a similar piece co-authored by Stassen and journalist Gary Krane. The articles generated a good deal of discussion on a number of both liberal and conservative blogs.

Describing himself as “consistently pro-life,” Stassen reported that he “analyzed the data on abortion during the Bush presidency” and reached some “disturbing” conclusions. "Under President Bush, the decade-long trend of declining abortion rates appears to have reversed," he said. "Given the trends of the 1990s, 52,000 more abortions occurred in the United States in 2002 than would have been expected before this change of direction."

Stassen's broad conclusion wasn't justified by the sketchy information he cited, however. Furthermore, a primary organization he cited specifically as a source for historical data now contradicts him, saying abortions have continued to decline since Bush took office. More about that later.

Hillary Clinton Uses It

Stassen offered his article as evidence that Bush's economic policies were driving pregnant women to abortion. And although he opposes abortion, his claim was soon picked up and repeated uncritically by the other side – supporters of abortion rights. In a speech to family-planning providers in New York on January 24, 2005 , Sen. Hillary Clinton recounted decreases in the abortion rate that occurred in her husband's administration, then lamented that the situation had changed. She repeated exactly some of the figures that Stassen had given in his Houston Chronicle article.

Clinton : But unfortunately, in the last few years, while we are engaged in an ideological debate instead of one that uses facts and evidence and common sense, the rate of abortion is on the rise in some states . In the three years since President Bush took office, 8 states saw an increase in abortion rates (14.6% average increase), and four saw a decrease (4.3% average), so we have a lot of work still ahead of us.

Clinton was careful not to state flatly that abortions were increasing nationally . She spoke only of "some states" in which the rate had increased. But she invited her listeners to conclude that the national trend to fewer abortions had reversed itself since Bush took office.

And in fact a few days later, in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press on January 30, 2005 , Sen. John Kerry claimed that abortions were up, period:

Kerry: And do you know that in fact abortion has gone up in these last few years with the draconian policies that Republicans have…. 

A Kerry spokesman confirmed at the time to FactCheck.org that Kerry was relying on the Stassen article for his information.

Finally, as recently as May 22, 2005 , Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean also asserted on NBC News' Meet the Press:

Dean:You know that abortions have gone up 25 percent since George Bush was President ?

Dean's "statistic" went unchallenged by moderator Tim Russert, so millions of viewers probably got the impression that Dean's very specific 25 percent figure was correct. But Dean was wrong -- and by a wide margin.

We asked the Democratic National Committee repeatedly where Dean got his 25 percent figure, but we got no response. Even if Stassen's estimate of 52,000 additional abortions were correct, that would figure to an increase of less than 4 percent. And in any case the rate is going down, not up, according to the most authoritative figures available.

Cherrypicking Data

A close reading of Stassen's article makes clear that he didn't even pretend to have comprehensive national data on abortion rates. He said he looked at data from 16 states only -- and didn't even name most of them.

Stassen said that in the four states that had already posted statistics for three full years of Bush’s first term, he found that abortion was up. Twelve more states had posted statistics for two years of Bush's term – 2001 and 2002 – and here the picture was mixed. According to Stassen, "Eight states saw an increase in abortion rates (14.6 percent average increase), and five saw a decrease (4.3 percent average)." A version of the piece in the Houston Chronicle reported instead that four saw a decrease with a 4.3 percent average.

So Stassen was projecting findings onto the entire country from 12 states that he said had showed an increase and 5 (or maybe 4) that he said had shown a decrease. That leaves a total of 34 other states for which Stassen had no data whatsoever.

Furthermore, Stassen is contradicted by one of the very organizations whose data he cites. The only primary source of data that Stassen cites specifically in the article is the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts a periodic survey of all known abortion providers, which numbered nearly 2,000 at last count. Guttmacher's statistics are widely used and respected by all sides in the abortion debate. It is the only organization to compile and publish national abortion-rate data other than the federal Center for Disease Control. CDC's official statistics, however, run only through 2001, so they shed no light on what has happened since Bush took office.

And Guttmacher – as we shall see – now says abortion rates have decreased since Bush took office. And that's based on data from 43 states, not just 16.

De-bunking the statistic

Stassen’s numbers, and the widespread acceptance they seemed to be getting, prompted the Guttmacher Institute to conduct a special analysis to update its comprehensive census of abortion providers for the year 2000. The increases that Stassen reported “would be a significant change in a long-standing trend in the US ,” Leila Darabi of the institute explained to Factcheck.

Besides the fact that Stassen claimed to have data only from 16 states, the Guttmacher Institute said it is likely that many of the states Stassen picked have higher abortion rates historically, have a higher concentration of population subgroups that tend to have more abortions, and see abortion rates rise more quickly when they do go up. Stassen himself named only Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Colorado among the 16 states he says he studied, but his co-author on the Houston Chronicle article listed each state in a separate article posted on the Internet.

The Guttmacher Institute found that two of the states Stassen used had unreliable reporting systems. In Colorado , for instance, where Stassen claimed that rates “skyrocketed 111 percent,” the reporting procedure had been recently changed in order to compensate for historic underreporting. Guttmacher also found Arizona had an inconsistent reporting system.

The Facts

The Guttmacher Institute announced its findings May 19. Guttmacher analyzed available government data "as an interim measure until another provider census can be conducted” according to a news release. The interim study analyzed data from 43 states determined to have reliable state reporting systems.

What it found was that the number of abortions decreased nationwide – by 0.8% in 2001 and by another 0.8% in 2002. The abortion rate , which is the number of women having abortions relative to the total population, also decreased 1% in 2001 and 0.9% in 2002. That's not as rapid a decrease as had been seen in earlier years, but it is a decrease nonetheless.

We give much weight to Guttmacher's analysis. Their figures are widely used and accepted by both anti-abortion groups and abortion-rights advocates. Their surveys of abortion providers go back to 1973, and Stassen cites them himself as the source for the number of abortions in 2000. 

Guttmacher has little motive to make Bush and his anti-abortion policies look good. The institute was founded in 1968 in honor of a former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and describes its mission as being" to protect the reproductive choice of all women and men in the United States and throughout the world.” Had Stassen’s numbers proven accurate, the Institute “would have reported and widely publicized a rise in abortion rates,” said Darabi. But facts are facts.

Update, May 26: Even Stassen now concedes that he can't substantiate his original claim. In a memo dated May 25, which he sent to  FactCheck.org just as we were posting our article, he praises the Guttmacher study and says it is "significantly better" than his own earlier effort:

Stassen, May 25: I based my estimates in October on the sixteen states whose data I could find then. Now, seven months later, and with their extensive data-gathering ability, AGI (Alan Guttmacher Institute) bases their results on 44 states. They say their results are only estimates, projections, but I believe their results are significantly better than what I could have obtained seven months ago. I affirm their methods and their study, and am grateful for their effort.

Nevertheless, Stassen still argues that the small rate of decline that Guttmacher reports still constitutes a "stall" in what had earlier been a more rapid decline. He also continues to criticize the Bush administration for economic policies that he says bring hardship on low-income women. "It is clear to me that undermining the financial support for mothers, undermining the availability of medical insurance, and increasing the jobless rate for prospective mates so that they are less likely to marry, has a bad influence on abortion rates and infant mortality rates."

For the full text of Stassen's response see "supporting documents" at right.

Correction: Our original article stated that Sen. Clinton had omitted to mention states in which abortions had decreased. In fact, as was obvious from the full quote we gave, she did state that abortions had decreased in four states. This updated article corrects our error.

Sources

Glen Harold Stassen, "Pro-Life? Look at the fruits," Sojomail, 13 October 2004.

Glen Harold Stassen and Gary Krane, "Why Abortion Rate Is Up In Bush Years," Houston Chronicle, 17 October 2004

Sen. Hillary Clinton, "Remarks by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to the NYS Family Planning Providers," 24 January 2005, website.

"Meet the Press," Transcript, National Broadcasting Company, 30 January 2005.

"Meet the Press," Transcript, National Broadcasting Company, 22 May 2005.

"Decades-Long Decline in Number and Rate of U.S. Abortions Continues, New Analysis Shows," Press Release, The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 19 May 2005.