Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: Five ‘Pro-Life’ Myths Debunked

Published On October 8, 2015 | By Jeff Stevens |

I really loved my Statistics class in college.  Fortunately, our professor focused on more than just chi squares — one of our assignments for the semester was to, by the end of the semester, find an argument in public discourse that misused statistics and show why the data didn’t support the argument.If that professor is still using that method to show students how misapplied statistics can bolster an argument, his students should have a field day with the recent crowing from the Right about “forcing” Cecile Richards to “admit” that abortion revenue at Planned Parenthood is approximately $262 million a year (another estimate has it at about $168 million).  They don’t realize that the more of their income that comes from abortions, the more likely it is that abortion revenue is subsidizing the preventative health services that taxpayer money is supposed to pay for, instead of the reverse.

Already the high figure touted by the Right has been demonstrated, if accurate, to prove abortion revenues pay for not just the entire cost to Planned Parenthood for providing them and any other services to an abortion patient that year, but also services provided to 380,000 more non-abortion patients.

I’d like to address a few other misapplications of statistics used to argue for myths in the abortion debate here — and why the data shows those same numbers prove the forced birthers are incorrect.

Myth One:  Since the number of abortions in the United States is still very high despite birth control, better access to birth control won’t stop abortions.

Fact:   While it’s unlikely that even universal birth control will completely stop abortions, the rate of abortions per women of reproductive age has been steadily decreasing, not increasing, since the early 80s.   The rates now are close to what they were pre-legalization.  The majority of the decrease coincidences with innovative new birth control methods that not only don’t require the cooperation of the male, but also don’t require daily action by the user to retain effectiveness.  Our population is rising faster than abortions are being reduced, which is why the numbers don’t match the rates.  But even with that discrepancy, overall abortion numbers are decreasing as well.

Myth Two:  So many of the women who had abortions weren’t using birth control — why are so many women not taking precautions?

Fact:  Women not using contraception are 85% likely to conceive in a year of sexual activity.   Birth control decreases that risk to between 0.05-15% depending on the method.   If the Guttmacher 2011 study referenced is correct and 49% of American women who had abortions weren’t on birth control, and there were 1.06 million abortions that year, those 519,400 who aborted were 85% of the estimated 611,000 women who would have aborted who weren’t using contraception.  27% were using condoms, 17% hormonal methods, and the other 7% of women were using a non-hormonal method (spermicide, sponge, cap, diaphragm, or copper IUD — which may be significant, as most pregnancies conceived with a copper IUD in place are either aborted or don’t survive removal of the IUD — sometimes it’s safer for the baby to leave the IUD in place — but of all the non-hormonal methods it is by far the most effective at preventing pregnancy in the first place).

Using the higher “average use” failure rate of 15% for condoms and 9% for hormonal methods (this is assuming the “hormonal method” is oral contraception, which is both the most common and least effective of the hormonal methods), the 27% of women who aborted after condom use represent at least 1.9 million women who used condoms for contraception who would have chosen to abort without birth control.  The 17% who used hormonal contraception represent at least another 2 million women who were taking precautions.  Even if the non-hormonal methods were all as effective as a diaphragm, at least 400,000 other women who would have chosen abortion were using those methods.  So the half of the women having abortions after unprotected sex represent (at the most)   12% of women having sex who would have an abortion if they got pregnant.  Without birth control, there could have been at least another three million abortions in 2011.

Myth Three:  Universal health care gives access to birth control, but in the UK 66% of women who had abortions were using contraception.  Why is birth control failing more when people have access to better birth control?  And what about the 34% not using it who had abortions?

Fact:  35% of the 150,000+ women surveyed were using condoms, 33% no birth control at all, and 32% were using another method.  It says of the 66% using birth control, 40% were using the Pill, so 26.4% of the 32% using prescription methods used the Pill, and just 5.6% were using a method that didn’t require daily user action.  The typical use failure rate for condoms is 15%.  The typical use failure rate for the Pill is about 9%. 185,331 people had abortions in the UK in 2013, the latter half of the study period.

So, 33% of 185,331 =  61,159 abortions in women not using any birth control = 71,952 women who would have aborted didn’t use contraception.  432,439 women who would have aborted used condoms.  543,647 women who would have aborted used the Pill.  The 10,379 women who had abortions while on another prescription birth control make up at least another 200,000 women who used those methods, if we assign a very high failure rate to them of 5% (ranges are more from 0.05-3%).

So in the UK, at least 1.264 million women had sex when they didn’t want to get pregnant, and only 5.6% of them didn’t use some form of birth control.  More are using birth control there than here.   Their abortion rate of 15.9 for every 1000 reproductive age women is lower than our rate of 16.9.  So birth control isn’t failing more in the UK — but since more women use it there, more of the women getting abortions were using it.  If the 1.113 million women using birth control had not been, there could have been over a million abortions in the UK in 2013.  Despite any potential increases in sexual activity thanks to contraception, abortions are still lower when people have access to contraception.

Myth Four:  Few women get pregnant after rape, even though you said 85% of women using no contraception will get pregnant. Is there something to the “body shutting the whole thing down” idea?

Fact:  Rates of unintended pregnancy without birth control reflect people having regular sexual activity for a year, so those are rates over 12-13 ovulation cycles and relatively constant presence of sperm.  The average number of cycles it took the women who got pregnant to do so was 7.  So as many as 3% of reproductive age who would get pregnant over a year of unprotected sex could get pregnant from a single random act of intercourse (with a 24-hour egg life, a 28 day cycle, and a 5-day sperm life).

That closely matches the number of people who do get pregnant from rape, about 5% of women of reproductive age.  Since some rapists use condoms, some raped women were already on birth control, and others get access to emergency contraception and use it, the  likelihood for a woman to get pregnant from rape is explained without much need for the body to “shut the whole thing down” — in fact, it either suggests that the number of rapes used to estimate the rate of pregnancy from rape is too low, or rape gives a small advantage to pregnancy.  Under-reporting of rapes that didn’t cause pregnancy is the most likely explanation.

Myth Five:  Maternal mortality is so low now that it is a “spurious” matter with no relevance to the abortion debate.

Fact:  Even including casualties from the September 11th attacks themselves and all other acts of terror since 2001, more Americans have died because of pregnancy-related causes since 2001 than we’ve lost in the War on Terror.  Are the 6000+ soldiers who have sacrificed their lives a “spurious” concern, or the people that died in the Twin Towers?  Is our current low war casualty rate justification to reinstate the Draft to fight the War on Terror, if we need more people than are willing to enlist voluntarily?

I hope that more people realize that they should critically examine the numbers that are thrown around, but here’s a start.

VictorianArticle originally published on Daily Kos by Maracat

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Jeff Stevens

Jeff Stevens

Jeff is a social activist and part-time blogger.
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