God forbid, an 8 percent increase in dubious claims

During the political conventions a few weeks ago, we commented on some disparate coverage of pro-life Democrats and pro-life Republicans. Let's revisit one aspect of that. Here, for instance, is a Los Angeles Times piece dramatically headlined:

Democratic 'pro-life' group: It is GOP that threatens the unborn

Given the Democratic Party's official position on no abortion limits and the Republican Party's official position against abortion, this is saying something. The article explains:

[O]thers addressing delegates and the media here said the much bigger threat to push up the rate of abortion would be posed by Republican attempts to rescind Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Without the health reform, many more women would lose the pre-natal and post-natal care they count on and would feel unable to sustain a pregnancy — causing many to turn to abortion, Schneck said.

He said that a test case of this belief had already occurred in Massachusetts. Because of a healthcare reform pushed, ironically, by former governor Romney, women now get comprehensive health treatment in that state. The result, Schneck said, has been a 20% drop in the abortion rate for teenagers.

Something similar, he argued, can be expected once Obama’s national healthcare reform takes effect.

Oh is that what Stephen Schneck said? The article doesn't tell us where Schneck gets his data or how reliable it is. From NBC we learn:

Stephen Schneck of Catholic University in Washington told the gathering that “the number of abortions will skyrocket” if Medicaid spending is cut, which would be one likely outcome of adopting the budget plan of the GOP vice presidential candidate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

“Can a pro-life voter vote for Romney if it means a 6 or 7 or, God forbid, an 8 percent increase in the number of abortions in America?” Schneck asked.

That all sounds very scientific, particularly if you know that Stephen Schneck isn't just any professor at Catholic University. Or, as Jonathan Last of the conservative The Weekly Standard explains in his rather brutal takedown of Schneck's use of these figures, "What the Schneck? A Catholic University scholar’s data-free theory on Romney and abortion":

Professor Stephen Schneck is a conundrum. He’s a Catholic who works for the Catholic University of America (CUA). But he’s involved with the group Catholics for Obama—despite the church hierarchy’s view that the president is attacking the religious freedom of Catholics. He’s pro-life. But he supports Democratic politicians universally—even though the party has become manifestly hostile to pro-lifers. Schneck’s most puzzling contradiction is this: He claims that while Democrats support abortion rights, it’s really Republicans who cause abortions.

Schneck is very specific about it. He has numbers. At an event in Charlotte earlier this month during the Democratic convention, Schneck spoke on a panel hosted by Democrats for Life. He asked the audience, “Can one vote for Romney if it means a 6, or 7, or, God forbid, 8 percent increase in the number of abortions in America?”

That’s an interesting question. Interesting because (1) it contradicts the received wisdom about abortion and (2) it does so with seeming mathematical precision. Schneck doesn’t foresee a 4 percent jump. Or a 12 percent jump. He locates the projected rise in a narrow band. It’s the kind of figure that brings you up short. Because Stephen Schneck isn’t just some crank professor trying to rile up his undergraduates. He’s the director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies—CUA’s in-house think tank. As IPR says on its website, the “institute continues to bring rigorous academic research to bear on contemporary questions of public policy and religion.”

So when Schneck says that the number of abortions will increase under Mitt Romney, by 6 or 7 or 8 percent, he isn’t just popping off. He’s a serious academic, wearing Catholic University’s pointiest, most rigorous, social science hat.

Last was one of the reporters covering that panel discussion. But, apparently, he was the only one with enough knowledge about abortion rates to question Schneck's data claims. He assumed, given Schneck's position and confidence and precision, that he had published research on the topic. Schneck hadn't. Schneck explained where his theory came from, but Last pushed him for the specific data. He didn't get it.

Last wasn't satisfied. Or as he put it, surely Schneck "wouldn’t claim that abortions will increase under a Romney administration by a given percentage and then say that there isn’t any research on the subject." After Last's third attempt to get him to explain how he arrived at his "6 percent to 8 percent" figure, Schneck stopped answering, according to Last.

So Last goes and digs through research on his own. He analyzes the research and its limitations. It turns out that "very little research turns on the exact question of what happens to abortion when public assistance for births is cut." There's not a single peer-reviewed study that deals precisely with that point, according to one professor who specializes in economics and the law of abortion. However, there are other studies hitting the question from another angle, Last says, showing that the Guttmacher Institute concluded in 2009 the precise opposite of what Schneck suggested.

There's much more, including a particularly noteworthy ending.

But I bring all this up to highlight the problems with just going with a source's word as the basis for a story. It's not that any technical journalism sin has been committed. I mean, all those stories about the "Innocence of Muslims" film being bankrolled by a particular number of Jews for a particular number of dollars explained that the claim was made by their source. And these reports about abortion rates going up 6-8 percent are just passing along the claims of another individual. That neither figure is backed up in the real world isn't the journalists' fault, technically. But should they be passing along this info with the headlines only making brief mention of the source? I don't know the right answer, actually. But it's not journalism's finest hour, obviously.

How to combat this?Is the best thing is to have reporters on the beat who are either much more skeptical of claims in general or just much more knowledgeable?

I know everyone's first editor says to "fact check it" when your mother says she loves you, but it's great advice.

This is an important topic, not just for those who favor or oppose unlimited rights to abortion, but for voters in general. It's important enough to get the facts right and to push sources to get facts right. There will always be different analysis of numbers, and that's understandable, but passing along such a specific claim without any analysis of the research (or lack thereof) that is being used to support the claim is probably not appropriate.

Number image via Shutterstock.

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