A new report released October 1 by abortion rights groups, Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and Ibis Reproductive Health, claims that the more laws regulating abortion a state has, the poorer the state performs in health outcomes for women and children. A brief look at the methodology employed, however, reveals a built-in subjectivity from which correlations and results are drawn, effectively stacking the deck to support the authors’ narrative.
Entitled “Evaluating Priorities: Measuring Women’s and Children’s Health and Well-being against Abortion Restrictions in the States,” the report surveys each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia for its laws regulating abortion, ranking it from 0-14 with one point for each abortion regulation signed into law. It also ranks the state’s performance on women’s and children’s health based on a large selection of hand-picked “indicators.” These two number rankings are then related via scatterplot to show a correlation between the sheer number of abortion laws and the health of women and children.
One foundational problem: The 76 hand-picked indicators by which the study purports to measure women’s and children’s health against abortion laws allow for much subjectivity. In particular, these indicators include whether a state has in place policies that the authors describe as “supportive of women’s and children’s wellbeing.”
Among the selected indicators used to produce a score of each state’s performance on women’s and children’s wellbeing are:
- Requirements to provide free, full-day kindergarten;
- Requirements for private-sector worksites such as restaurants and bars to be smoke-free;
- Requirements for schools to provide sex education;
- Smoking prevalence;
- Asthma incidence;
- And having one or more regulations regarding firearms, such as storage requirements.
States with constituents and legislators who do not generally agree that such policies are good for their state for any reason will not fare well.
Moreover, the report takes no account of other factors (poverty for one) that might correlate more strongly with the state health outcomes than anything the authors deemed important enough to include. In addition, the correlation is riddled with exceptions – New Mexico, a state with few pro-life laws and a haven for late-term abortion, has relatively poor health outcomes, while several states with many pro-life laws on the books (e.g., Utah, Nebraska and Kansas) rank high on the survey indicators.
The introduction to the study provides insight into the groups’ defensive posture as they seek to respond to the recent wave of legislation regulating abortion at the state level. The Executive Summary reads: “The need to delve deeper and go farther in illuminating the picture of women’s reproductive health in the United States is clear as state legislators continue to introduce numerous restrictions on abortion every year.” Continuing in red, “In 2014 alone, more than 250 bills restricting abortion were introduced in nearly 40 states.”
The authors write: “We know that legislators who seek to… force doctors to practice medicine in ways that conflict with their own evidence-based experience and medical judgment cannot honestly claim to own the mantle of women’s health and safety.” It is ironic then that the study itself takes issue with conscience protection laws for healthcare providers who object to abortion and so are permitted by law to refuse to provide or participate in it.
Finally, several studies have shown that pro-life laws – even laws far stronger than those enacted here – correlate well with very positive outcomes on such indicators as maternal mortality. A 2011 study by the Pension and Population Research Institute of London showed that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (where abortion has been legally restricted) have better maternal health outcomes (fewer stillbirths, fewer low-weight births, and lower breast cancer rates) than Wales, Scotland, and England (where abortion has been legal since 1968).
The best way to design a serious study to measure maternal and child well-being would be to compare public health outcomes before pro-life laws were passed to public health outcomes after pro-life laws were passed. The 2012 study by Elard Koch showed that the maternal mortality rate in Chile continued to decline after abortion was legally restricted in 1989. More such studies would be welcome.
While many can agree that the health of women and their families “is impacted by a diverse host of factors,” an attempt to measure overall health of women and children by simplifying a massive amount of data – collected, no less, from whatever the most recent year is for each indicator – is simply too vulnerable to bias. Instead of proving that pro-life legislators and groups do not really care about women and children, the report’s circular reasoning reads more like a political platform than a serious policy analysis.
Genevieve Plaster is Research Assistant at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.