Until recently, a Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good study of abortion data claimed that increased spending on welfare programs results in substantial reductions in state abortion rates but many pro-life laws do not. However, the study’s results have been revised following the discovery that incorrect abortion data was used and after criticism from a professor that the group’s conclusions did not follow from the data.
In August 2008, the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good announced the release of a study on the effects of public policy on abortion rates over a 20-year period. The group had commissioned Joseph Wright, who is a political science professor at Penn State University, and Michael Bailey, who is a professor of American government at Georgetown University, to conduct the study.
“The study of all U.S. states from 1982-2000 finds that benefits for pregnant women and mothers, employment, economic assistance to low-income families, quality child care for working mothers and removal of state caps on the number of children eligible for economic assistance in low-income families has reduced abortions,” the group reported in an August 28 press release. “In contrast, permitting Medicaid payments for abortions increased the abortion rate.”
The old version of the report was removed from the site in November 2008 after critics pointed out problems with the study.
The new version credits only Prof. Joseph Wright, acknowledging Prof. Bailey in a footnote for “helpful feedback.”
“This release of the report corrects an error in data used for the previous release and provides further robustness checks for the main results,” the footnote states.
The feedback of Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama, was acknowledged in the new version of the report. Writing at the web site MoralAccountability.com, New said that the authors of the study discovered that they had used incorrect abortion data for the years following 1997.
“Furthermore,” New wrote, “after some dialogue with me, the authors decided that it would be appropriate to eliminate data from states, such as Kansas, where abortion reporting was inconsistent over time. These changes have had a substantial effect on the study’s findings.
“The new version provides evidence that welfare policy has no more than a marginal effect on the incidence of abortion,” he argued. “In fact, the new regression results indicate that none of the three welfare policies which the authors previously argued were effective tools for reducing the incidence of abortion have a substantial abortion reducing effect.”
According to New, the new regression results indicate that the presence of family caps limiting the number of children eligible for additional welfare benefits “has only a marginal effect” on state abortion rates.
New argued that the report’s statistical results are not consistent across time.
He also criticized the report’s finding that parental involvement laws and other state laws restricting abortion have little impact on overall abortion rates.
“Since parental involvement laws only directly affect minors, Wright should have mentioned that analyzing their effects on the overall abortion rate is not a methodologically sound way to gauge their actual impact,” New wrote.
The argument that informed consent laws are ineffective, New claimed, fails to acknowledge the “substantial differences” in the effects of informed consent laws that have been enacted and those that have been nullified. By the report’s criteria, New argued, the results provide evidence that informed consent laws are effective.
CNA also sought comment from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and received a Tuesday e-mail from the study author Joseph Wright.
Wright confirmed that the earlier version of the report was in fact replaced because of erroneous abortion data.
“I discovered that I had used abortions by state of residence for the years 1997 onwards and abortions by state of occurrence before 1997. (Before 1997, the CDC did not collect data on abortions by residence.)”
He explained that Prof. Bailey had requested his name be removed from the report because “he was too busy to deal with the many inquiries after the release of the first report.”
Wright argued that New was incorrect in suggesting that the updated study has no finding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) spending.
“I find consistent, robust results in the 1990s showing that welfare spending reduces the abortion rate -- using multiple samples, weighting techniques and statistical estimations.”
“The results change for some variables because I use different data. Despite the change in the data, both versions of the study find strong support for the contention that welfare spending and male employment helped reduce the abortion rate in the 1990s. Whether I include or exclude certain states (e.g. Kansas) that New excludes from his study, my results remain the same. Similarly, whether I weight data or not, the results remain.”
He said these and other issues will be addressed in a note to be posted on Wednesday.
“The larger point here is that in social science research, findings can change when you use new data,” Wright’s e-mail to CNA concluded. “The main conclusions concerning the socioeconomic determinants of abortion remain robust. As we collect new data through the early 2000s, we will rerun the models and report new results. This is how research works.”
However, Professor New also pointed out that events in the political arena were impacted by the first study.
In an essay at MoralAccountability.com, New accused Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good of misleading the public and referred to “plenty of peer reviewed studies” which find that public funding restrictions and parental involvement laws reduce the incident of abortion.
He claimed the study had a “substantial impact” on the pro-life debate in the 2008 Presidential election and gave “intellectual legitimacy” to those such as Doug Kmiec and Nicholas Cafardi who argued that pro-life voters should vote for Democrats to advance the pro-life cause.
In a Tuesday e-mail to CNA, Prof. New said that the research produced by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good seems unwilling to acknowledge the “positive effect of pro-life laws such as parental involvement and informed consent laws.”
CNA asked New to speculate why welfare spending generally does not decrease the abortion rate.
He suggested that welfare “undermines societal mores against premarital sex” by enabling women to have more children out of wedlock. Welfare may result in more unplanned pregnancies and possibly more abortions, New said.
“Regardless of how generous welfare benefits are, women facing crisis pregnancies can find financial and medical resources at one of the thousands of crisis pregnancy centers across the country,” he added.
New noted the finding in both the current and previous versions of the group’s report that shows higher female employment is correlated with higher abortion rates.
“This is an interesting finding and would be a good topic for future research,” he said. “It is possible that women are more likely to seek employment when the economy is doing badly and the bad economy is increasing abortion rates. It is also possible that states with higher female employment might be those states with more liberal attitudes toward abortion.”
Asked to name further studies on the effects of pro-life laws on abortion rates, New referenced a 1986 study of the Massachusetts Parental Notice law published in the American Journal of Public Health. While the number of Massachusetts minors obtaining abortions in other states increased by an average of 66 per month after the law took effect, the number of abortions performed on minors inside Massachusetts fell by an average of 149 per month.
A 1991 study showed the minor abortion rate in Minnesota fell by 28 percent after a parental notification law was enacted in 1981. Additionally, a 2006 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a Texas notification law that took effect in 2000 resulted in a fall in abortion rates of between 11 and 20 percent depending on the age group.
New also mentioned a 2002 study which showed that Medicaid recipients have a higher incidence of abortion in states where Medicaid funds the procedure.
“In states that provide Medicaid funding for abortions, women with Medicaid coverage had an abortion rate more than four times as high as women without such coverage (89 vs. 21 per 1,000),” New summarized. “In contrast, in states that do not cover abortion services for women on Medicaid, the abortion rate among Medicaid recipients was only twice that of women without Medicaid coverage (35 vs. 16 per 1,000).”
While the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good study reports an increase in abortion rates in states where abortions are funded by Medicaid, New charged: “they do not give this finding much attention in the write-up.”
“Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good continues to miss opportunities with their abortion research,” New told CNA.
“I think that they would be more effective if they would be more willing to publicly acknowledge the positive impact of pro-life legislation and try to constructively work with pro-life groups to promote social policies that will further reduce abortion rates. Instead Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good seems primarily interested in providing moral, political, and theological cover for supporters of Barack Obama and other Democrats who support ‘abortion rights.’”