Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ross Douthat and Abortion

Ross Douthat had a column in Saturday's New York Times called "The Media's Blinders on Abortion," arguing (1) that the media generally ignore the fact that the United States is becoming more anti-abortion, and (2) that Planned Parenthood's downplays abortions as a percentage of its services.

A lot of people commented on various aspects of the piece, including the fact that Douthat has never had to decide to terminate a pregnancy. Several also stated, correctly, that Planned Parenthood provides health care for many low-income women across the country. I want to comment on Douthat's use of statistics, because I think he's cherry-picking.

First, here's what he says about American attitudes:
In the most recent Gallup poll on abortion, as many Americans described themselves as pro-life as called themselves pro-choice. A combined 58 percent of Americans stated that abortion should either be “illegal in all circumstances” or “legal in only a few circumstances.” These results do not vary appreciably by gender: in the first Gallup poll to show a slight pro-life majority, conducted in May 2009, half of American women described themselves as pro-life.
Yes, Gallup reports that in May 2009, slightly more Americans reached in its "Values and Beliefs" survey called themselves "pro-life" rather than "pro-choice" (51% to 42%). But the report goes on to say that, as has been true for many years, most (53%) of Americans felt that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances. (There is a lot of variation among which circumstances.) But that was two years ago. The most recent (2011) poll still shows that most Americans believe abortion should be legal under some circumstances. The percent of Americans saying abortion should be illegal under all circumstances has ranged, since 1975, from a low of 13% to a high of 23%. In 2009 it was, guess what, 23%. By 2011 it had dropped back to 20%. These are probably normal fluctuations due to polling issues, and Douthat should have reported them. (I use "Americans" in this paragraph, as Gallup does on its website, but the correct term is probably "respondents.")

Here's what Douthat says about Planned Parenthood's services:

It’s true that abortion is only one of the services Planned Parenthood provides. . . But abortion is hardly an itty-bitty and purely tangential aspect of its mission, as many credulous journalists have implied.
Planned Parenthood likes to claim that abortion accounts for just 3 percent of its services, for instance, and this statistic has been endlessly recycled in the press. But the percentage of the group’s clients who received an abortion is probably closer to 1 in 10, and Planned Parenthood’s critics have estimated, plausibly, that between 30 and 40 percent of its health center revenue is from abortion.
By way of comparison, the organization also refers pregnant women for adoption. In 2010, this happened 841 times, against 329,445 abortions.
Planned Parenthood, the parent organization, provides aggregated, summary information about services provides from its affiliates throughout the country. (The affiliates decide which services to provide. Some provide abortions, but others don't.) That aggregated information is the source of Douthat's claim. The 2010 summary available as a pdf here, but I'll post a screenshot:
It appears that Douthat's claim that abortion might be as much as 10% of services is based on comparing the 330,000 abortions to the 11,000,000 different services Planned Parenthood provided. Did he do the math wrong? In any case, it's an apples-to-oranges comparison: some patients may have received more than one of the services.

But it's more important, once again, to consider the context. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that the number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44 has been declining; in 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, that was 19.6 per 1000, down from a high of 29.3 per 1000 in 1981. In 2008, 1.21 million abortions were performed in the United States. The average cost per non-hospital abortion under local anesthesia (ie, most abortions)? Under $500. Remember, also, that 87% of US counties, where 35% of US women reside, did not have an abortion provider. That means that those sites that perform abortions, Planned Parenthood among them, perform more than their share of abortions.

I could go on. (Like Douthat's suggestion that it's somehow weird that Planned Parenthood refers women for mammograms? So does my Park Avenue ob-gyn. It's not like getting a dental x-ray). But if someone is going to take on an organization like Planned Parenthood over statistics, they need to do it right.

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