Fetal distraction: Spinning abortion numbers

Abortions have fallen to their lowest rate since the Supreme Court enshrined it as a constitutional right in 1973, according to a new report by the Guttmacher Institute: 16.9 abortions for every 1,000 women between 15 and 44, versus 16.3 per 1,000 women back in 1973. Why this is happening is another matter. Cue the media debates.

Guttmacher offered a few explanations. One was the improvement in contraceptives including IUDs. Another was the well-known deferral in childbearing by many couples. Still another was the rise in early abortions induced by chemicals, from six percent of all abortions in 2001 to 23 percent in 2011.

You can probably guess one reason the institute didn’t consider: Because a lot of women might consider it wrong. That may be because of leakage from its activism wing. As its own research announcement said:

"Over the past three years, we have seen an unparalleled attack on abortion rights at the state level, and these new restrictions are making it harder for women to access services and for providers to keep clinic doors open," says Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at Guttmacher. "As we monitor trends in abortion going forward, it is critical that we also monitor whether these state restrictions are preventing women who need abortion services from accessing them."

Guttmacher's defensiveness is rather puzzling. Despite the drop in abortions, most Americans told Gallup in January that they don’t want Roe v. Wade overturned. And outright opponents of legalized abortion have been slowly dwindling since at least 1989. "Today's views are neither as conservative as they were in 1975 nor as liberal as they were in the early 1990s, but are about average for the entire time frame," the Gallup study says.

The Washington Post's piece on the matter did include the other side. One articulate quote:

“This is a post-sonogram generation,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, the group behind many of the new state limits on abortions. “There is increased awareness throughout our culture of the moral weight of the unborn baby. And that’s a good thing.”

The Post does stumble in reporting on state-passed restrictions.

Rather than saying merely that the new laws will restrict abortions, the article mentions "new regulations that critics say will impede women’s access to abortion." This despite the fact that the Guttmacher report itself says state restrictions had little effect on the drop between 2008 and 2010.

The Time team went fairly down the center of the road, brisky summarizing the study and offering background on possible reasons. It joined the Post in quoting Yost, who dissed the study as “an abortion-industry propaganda piece short on data and long on strained conclusions.”

But the Deseret News leaned the other way, devoting six of its 11 paragraphs to a reaction from the National Right to Life Committee. The story linked to the committee's own 38-page report and added a quote by its president, Carol Tobias.

The Los Angeles Times, too, quoted Tobias, as well as Nash, in its report on the study. Like most other mainstream reports, though, the Times biased its terms: The Guttmacher group "supports abortion rights," while Right to Life simply "opposes abortion." The story also mentions "abortion providers," rather than simply people who perform abortions.

One eyebrow archer for me: Some bloggers have given cautious approval to the study findings. Peter Weber of The Week found something good in the drop in unwanted pregnancies: "Both sides -- if only for this one moment -- should find plenty to celebrate in this drop in the abortion rate."

Of course, he's leaving out the individuals who get discarded before they can take a breath -- but the unborn are hard to quote or poll.

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