Friday, February 17, 2017

Calling Fact or Crap on Some Planned Parenthood Statistics


With the reinstating of the Mexico City policy, the waters of the Internet have been chummed with facts regarding Planned Parenthood. As one would expect, this has resulted in a veritable frenzy regarding the organization, its history, and just what exactly it, you know, does. And since research skills continue to be my only known super-power (although I faithfully re-test my ability to use the force once a week--I'll keep you posted), I decided to do my part and investigate the veracity of these claims. So here are nine arguments regarding planned parenthood that I've found during my residency on the Internet and my take on whether or not they're factual, dishonest, or somewhere in between.

1. Planned Parenthood is the nation's largest abortion provider, with almost one in three U.S. abortions committed at its facilities.

This is true.

Of the 900,000 abortions that happened in 2014[1], Planned Parenthood performed about a third of them[4,6]. However, they also constitute 38% of all places which give abortions. There are about 650 planned parenthood offices in the United States[3] and 1670 total abortion providers[1]. So, when you do the math, they're performing about as many as one would expect. Actually, they may even be providing fewer. More on that in a moment...

2. More than 1 in 10 Planned Parenthood clients have abortions.

This is also true. Kind of.

There's a range here that can be anywhere from 7 to 12 percent[2] and the bound of that range depends on how many individuals have more than one abortion per year. Taking an educated stab at it, I'd guess that about 10% of all clients have abortions annually. Whether or not this is because Planned Parenthood is going out its way to perform the procedure or if their clientele are selecting Planned Parenthood because of their willingness to perform the procedure is the next question we should be asking. Instead of, you know, making party-based assumptions.



The only controversial stance my party approves of is the inclusion of Hawaiian as a legitimate form of pizza.

3. The number of Planned Parenthood abortions has risen nearly 30 percent since 2002 while the number of abortions nationally has dropped over the same period.

This is true. But we need to have some context here.

The number of abortions that the organization has been performing has been rising, but so has there share of the "industry" (for the painful want of a better term) has risen since 2002. Abortion clinics have been closing over the last 15 years while planned parenthood has been opening new locations [3]. Meaning that they will rise in the total share of abortions performed annually.

However, let's look at the average number of abortion procedures performed in each planned parenthood per year. If you do the math it ends up being about 504 abortions per clinic per year[4]. While this is large, the average for all service providers (including other clinics and/or hospitals) of them including planned parenthood averaged 554. Meaning that Planned Parenthood was actually lowering the average. They're performing fewer abortions than other clinics, certainly, and possibly even fewer than the hospitals performing the procedure. Yet hospitals continue to receive federal funding (as they rightfully should). Just leaving that last bit out there.

4. A pregnant woman going to Planned Parenthood was more than 15 times more likely to abort than receive an adoption referral or prenatal care.

This is one of those that we really can't tell if it's true or not.

The main reason behind this ambiguity is the fact Planned Parenthood does not actually provide statistics on how many pregnant women it deals with[1]. This number appears to have been conjured by multiplying the total number of adoption referrals and prenatal procedures and dividing that into the total number of abortion figures. Which, to be candid, IS NOT HOW PROBABILITIES WORK. If we wanted to know that random person X is 15 times more likely to receive an abortion, we'd need to control for a bunch of relevant demographic factors. Including, you know, if the woman was pregnant.

5. For every adoption referral that was made, Planned Parenthood performed 174 abortions.

This is true.

To be fair though, using this as a reason to lambaste them is like judging PETA for its low rate of pet adoptions. (Actually, considering their euthanization policy, you might be inclined to judge them harsher. Not because animal lives are worth more but because it seems a tad hypocritical given the "ethical" part of their name and all). Planned Parenthood openly says that its not in the adoption game; that's not why it's there. It will provide the service for the sake of its larger goal, but it's there to help people plan families. And right now most of what constitutes family planning consists of figuring out how not to have one until you're ready. So it will provide more abortion procedures, more sex-ed classes, more treatments for STI's, and more pregnancy tests and contraception related services than it will with adoptions. I understand that from some moral perspectives they should be inclined to inform women of the option. And I could see how this number may make them feel like that moral view is being repudiated. However, this statistic isn't how many times they mentioned the service but how many times people took them up on it. Again, we could be dealing with selection bias.

6. Without federal funding of Planned Parenthood, the number of abortions will rise and the number of adoptions will fall.

Nope. This is a common argument on the "Pro" side of the debate and it's pretty much false.

All evidence available to us at the moment tells us that the number of abortions that people undertake is actually relatively stable[5]. If there are services available, Y number of abortions will happen. If services aren't available Y number of abortions will still happen. They will just not be performed by trained professionals. This is not good from a health perspective as the rates of complications are going to be dramatically bigger if you try a medical procedure without any training. Just a guess.

Regarding the adoption number: Again, we don't know how often Planned Parenthood offers the referral service to its clients but they're largely not driving the nation's adoption work[7]. If they never issued another referral, it would hardly make a dent in the national figures. Sure it would technically "go down" but only in the same way that closing McDonald's might decrease the number of people killed by cows each year.

7. While the number of abortions performed has increased, Planned Parenthood's adoption referrals fell more than 14 percent.

This is true.

I'm not sure why the referrals fell across that time period. It could be that they were not prioritizing the service as much or that their patients weren't asking for assistance in a way that would bring about more referrals. This is similar to the issue we talked about in number 5. We don't know if there's selection bias or not. So we could just be linking two ultimately unrelated statistics together and weaving an ideological narrative through them. Just a possibility.



8. Most of PP clinics are located in poor black communities...More black babies are being aborted than born in NYC.

The veracity of this statement is contingent on where one's ideology lies. Because there's a lot going on with this one.

So it's true that Blacks are more likely to elect to undergo an Abortion than Whites compared to the rest of the U.S. population. However, this probably reflects on the fact that women who are unmarried, who are poor, and who are not in a stable living situation tend to have more abortions. And due to a whole bunch of sociohistorical reasons that I could write several books about and still only scratch the surface, many of these social conditions overlap with being Black in America.

Regarding the "black babies" thing, it is true that the national abortion rate amongst Black women is greater than the number of live births of Black children in New York City. This is true. However, it is obviously emotionally and ideologically laden language. And, no, this is not a strawman-- this is actually an exact quote from someone on my Facebook feed. Whether or not you think fetuses are babies are not is a moral debate. But a number of scientists are not particularly comfortable equating the lifeform in the womb at 9 weeks with that of a live child for a number of reasons. Many are certainly philosophically troubling but it isn't pure capriciousness.

9. Abortion Only Constitutes 3% of Planned Parenthood's Total Services Performed.

This is true. But, as a fact, it's honestly pretty bullsh*t. And I'm not the only person who feels that way either[1].

Here's the deal. Yes, if you tallied up the total number of things that planned parenthood does and set that as the denominator and put the number of abortions as the devisor, you'll get about 3%[6]. But this number intrinsically equates abortion with providing a pamphlet. Or giving an STI class, or helping with Sex Ed. But they aren't the same thing. An abortion is a medical procedure. Giving out a pamphlet isn't. As a number, it's ultimately meaningless and means to downplay what is ultimately a core aspect of the organization's existence: To provide sexual health and family planning services. And it is a pivotal part of the latter.  

Look, this is obviously a polarizing issue with different moral and political tenets being cued up in many of the questions and discussions on the topic. And that's OK. For better or worse, the definition of life is not certain. Even if it were, personhood certainly isn't. So when the issue is talked about in partisan and in moral terms, there's going to be a lot of passion flowing. That's good. Passion's good. Reasonable discussion is good. That's how we come to learn and appreciate the positions of others who are not like us. However, when you look at the statistics that are thrown about, it becomes clear that they are not always intended to provide clear, objective facts to assist in debate. Numbers themselves may not lie, but they can be beaten, bloodied, and bruised until they tell us a truth consistent with the ones we want.

And we can do better.










[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/08/12/for-planned-parenthood-abortion-stats-3-percent-and-94-percent-are-both-misleading/?utm_term=.2f7eea3bd517

[2] http://www.factcheck.org/2015/09/planned-parenthoods-services/

[3] https://www.plannedparenthood.org/planned-parenthood-heartland/who-we-are/history

[4] https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/induced-abortion-united-states

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/world/12abortion.html

[6] https://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/who-we-are/planned-parenthood-at-a-glance

[7] http://www.pbs.org/pov/offandrunning/fact-sheet/


Peter Licari Student in Political Behavior and Elections

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