Thursday, December 7, 2017

Abortion stats mistake creates CNN fake news claim

Notable journalist Kirsten Powers made a claim on CNN that abortion rates decline faster under Democratic presidents than under Republican presidents. She said it's Democratic public policy initiatives, not prolife laws, that save lives. Is that true?

Powers' claim relies on an article by Neha Thirani Bagri published on the news website Quartz, using the Centers for Disease Control abortion rate figures since 1980.

If you look at the graph, it looks like abortion rates did decline dramatically during the Clinton Administration. The numbers are from the CDC, so one might assume they are totally legitimate.

Not so fast! Anyone who’s done significant research into abortion statistics knows that the CDC abortion report does not include California, the most populous state in the union. In fact, California stopped reporting abortions in 1998, smack dab in the middle of the time frame Bagri uses to claim Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are better than Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and George W. Bush at reducing abortion.

This error means the numbers Powers was using during the Clinton years to back up her claim are worthless. California accounted for nearly a quarter of the abortions in America in 1997, and had an abortion rate nearly twice the national average, 38 per 1000 women of reproductive age versus 20 overall. The massive drop you see in 1998 in the graph is not proof of some great advance by Bill Clinton in preventing abortions; the drop is because the massive state with the highest abortion rate in the union refused to continue reporting their abortion numbers in 1998. It would be like a pollster suddenly taking Democrats out of his polling sample and claiming the Republican is now ahead.

It’s tempting to entirely blame Powers for making a claim that’s relying on bad data, but we shouldn't be too harsh. Powers is not some pro-abortion journalist with an axe to grind; she was the one who broke the Kermit Gosnell story into the national news, taking biased reporters to task for ignoring it. After all, the Bagri article she relied on uses numbers from the the CDC, looking credible at a glance. Powers' mistake came from assuming her fellow reporter actually read the reports she was analyzing.

True blame for this CNN "fake news" error should rest with Bagri, who either glanced at the report without reading the whole thing, or completely failed to understand it. This is a never-ending problem with reporting in America, especially dealing with abortion. Reporters decry the existence of "fake news," but frequently make or repeat claims without doing even basic research themselves. They often operate no differently than random people on social media, when they are supposed to be trusted to dig deeply into issues.

Bagri in particular went on to make sweeping claims in her article about why abortions declined under Democratic presidents. How can she make those bold claims if she didn't even read the abortion report she was analyzing? She also conveniently began her analysis in 1980, completely neglecting the fast rise in abortions under the ambivalent Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter administrations. Looking at a graph of abortion numbers (both the CDC numbers and numbers from the Guttmacher Institute), someone just eyeballing it should easily conclude that it was Ronald Reagan who changed the trajectory of increasing abortions in America, not that Democratic presidents are solely responsible for decreasing abortions.

How many thousands of people have taken Bagri's claims to heart and will repeat them in the future, including influential people like Powers? How many saw Powers make her claim on CNN? How many will see this correction?

Telephone is a fun game. In also teaches people a valuable lesson: in every step in a stream of communication vital information can be lost. That’s why it’s always important to go back to the source as much as possible. The next time you hear a bold claim—especially about the issue of abortion—do some digging before automatically running with it. Hopefully next time Powers and everyone reading this will think twice before trusting a writer with a clear bias, even when the writer is using data from a credible organization like the CDC.

The next time someone wants to make a claim that only Democratic presidents are responsible for reducing abortion, they need to reconstruct the data set to account for California keeping us in the dark. But even that exercise is ludicrously simplistic. Michigan's experience is a perfect example.

The biggest drop in our state’s abortion rate happened in 1989, when Michigan had a Democratic governor, Jim Blanchard. Was Blanchard’s enlightened leadership the cause of this amazing drop? No! In fact, it was his intransigence that prevented even earlier abortion reductions, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of individuals who would be with us today. Was that because he was a Democrat? No, it was because he was pro-abortion.

In 1987 it was prolifers of all stripes in Michigan who took to the streets with a petition drive to help enact a ban on Medicaid-funded abortions in Michigan. Prolife legislators passed the initiated legislation into law over the objections of Blanchard. Michigan voters upheld the ban in a 1988 referendum. The next year abortions dropped instantly and massively. We can’t know exactly how many abortions were prevented, but the effect of this prolife law is undeniable. A simple analysis might entirely overlook this fact of history, giving credit to Jim Blanchard, or even George H.W. Bush using Powers' simple logic

There’s also a lot of other factors involved in the ongoing decline of abortion, especially the increase in prolife sentiment in America since the partial-birth abortion debate in the mid-1990s. In a sense we can thank Bill Clinton and his repeated defenses of that barbaric abortion procedure for initiating a sea change in opinion and renewed prolife vigor in the states.

Another huge problem with these sorts of analyses is that abortion statistics are not always reliable. In Michigan in the past we know abortion clinics have refused to report their numbers to the state. Even our own official numbers over time are somewhat suspect. We do the best we can when analyzing these numbers, but that importantly includes reading these abortion reports from cover to cover. Any reporter who wants to be taken seriously on these issues needs to at least read the report before purporting to analyze it.

Presidents do matter when it comes to abortion, especially for who sits on the U.S. Supreme Court. Prolife laws and prolife education are far more important to saving lives, however. Michigan is proof positive of that. People who recognize that abortions are wrong and want to reduce abortions should join our efforts.