On claims of an increase in U.S. abortions since 2001

by Wm. Robert Johnston
13 July 2005

Shortly before the November 2004 presidential election, Glen Stassen wrote an opinion piece "Pro-Life? Look at the Fruits" which claimed that abortions in the U.S. had increased under the current Bush administration. He further claimed that this was a consequence of Bush economic policies. Democrats seized upon Stassen's claims, despite the fact that they were later refuted by other analysts. Among those who apparently adopted Stassen's thesis were Hillary Clinton and Howard Dean.

Among the many observers who pointed out flaws in Stassen's approach was the National Right to Life Committee. The Alan Guttmacher Institute released research in 2005 refuting Stassen's conclusions. Nonetheless, Stassen has issued several more statements affirming his original thesis and making additional claims.

Since Dr. Stassen cites my web site in his defense of his claimed abortion increase, I thought I'd weigh in. My training includes not just statistical analysis but also understanding the potential limits of such analysis. Stassen's analysis fails for two main reasons:

  1. His data is limited, and he fails to recognize how the limitations of the data damage the validity of his quantitative conclusions.

  2. He focuses on a handful of influences on abortion rates to the exclusion of others. He then erroneously claims a casual relation based on a correlation between his chosen influences and his fictitious abortion increase.

I have received questions relating to Stassen's articles and hope to soon complete an extended analysis. For now, I would point out the following:

Stassen accuses his critics of placing partisan politics before pro-life policies. The data suggests that this criticism would better fit Stassen himself. His data analysis was poorly carried out, and even worse Stassen ignored the deficiencies in his approach in his zeal to support his thesis of federal social policy being the greatest factor in abortion rates. His selective use of evidence indicates no acknowledgement of factors which are better correlated with lower abortion rates--mandatory waiting periods, for one. He offers no support to such policies that offer greater promise for reducing abortions.

In fact, it seems clear that Stassen's analysis was colored by his desire to influence policy: "Had my esimate that abortions...probably increased...turned out to be right, it would have put significant pressure on the Bush administration to give more support to mothers and babies... You would expect consistently pro-life advocates like me to hope I was right." Unfortunately, the facts got in the way, it seems. This is a particularly disturbing aspect of this episode. That Stassen, a Christian ethicist, should insist on faithfulness to false data to further a particular agenda, is a denial of ethics and of the Christian goal of truth.

© 2005 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 13 July 2005.
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