Scholars face off over effects of welfare benefits on abortion rate


Debate continues over the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good study of abortion data and the alleged effect of social programs on the abortion rate.

In August 2008 the group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) had published research claiming that social welfare programs reduced the abortion rate.

It was later found that the research used faulty abortion data.

The author of the research, political science professor Joseph Wright of Penn State University, issued a revised report and has recently defended his research’s merits against Michael J. New, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.

New argued that the new report shows social policies have “no more than a marginal effect on the incidence of abortion” and argued the research downplayed the effect of abortion restrictions.

Wright replied by insisting he found “consistent, robust results” showing that welfare spending reduces the abortion rate even with the abortion data being corrected.

Responding to New’s Feb. 9 criticism that his findings are not consistent across time, Wright wrote that variations in his data finds different effects at different times because one assistance program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, had “real variations” between states in the 1990s, while the Aid for Dependent Children program was a national program during the 1980s.

He defended findings that the abortion rate is little affected by laws placing minor restrictions on abortion such as parental consent laws, informed consent laws, restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortions, and the outlawing of partial birth abortion.

“None of these are robustly correlated with fewer abortions,” Wright said.

He argued that New uses a statistical technique that does not account for the “dynamic nature” of the data. Wright said the CACG study uses an estimation technique allowing for short- and long-term effect on the abortion rate.

“In the model that New uses, the effects of the explanatory variable are assumed to occur only in the current year. This difference is important because some factors that affect the abortion rate may do so over the long term, Wright argued.

Wright also said that New weights the data by population in a way that can be problematic. He asked New to report results with both weighted and unweighted data.

According to Wright, New’s analysis leaves out U.S. states that only collect abortion data from hospitals. Wright said his results also are robust enough to account for these states and others which New claims may have biased data.

He also countered New’s claim that numerous peer-reviewed studies show that state-level restrictions reduce abortion, claiming “there is little consensus on this issue… Claims suggesting that the peer-review research has settled the debate on the effectiveness of abortion restrictions are misleading.”

Prof. New responded to Wright in a Feb. 13 post on the web site

Praising Wright for admitting that an error had been made in his previous report, New said: “Many researchers are not forthright about mistakes and Wright and his original co-author should be commended for their honesty.”

New then argued that CACG is fundamentally asking readers and supporters to take a “leap of faith.” Describing as “interesting” their findings about 1990s welfare spending, he encouraged further research about the effect of policy on the incidence of abortion.

He repeated his earlier criticism that inconsistency of Wright’s results across time should raise doubts about his findings’ reliability.

“More importantly, I have been unable to identify any peer reviewed research which supports the idea that more generous welfare benefits significantly reduce the incidence of abortion,” he wrote.

“Contrary to Wright’s statement, there actually is a substantial body of peer reviewed research which documents the effectiveness of pro-life laws. In particular, public funding restrictions reduce overall abortion rates and parental involvement laws reduce the incidence of abortion among minors.”

He argued the studies cited by Prof. Wright “do little to undermine this substantial body of research which indicates that pro-life laws are effective.”

Claiming that Wright has not been willing to acknowledge that parental involvement laws only directly affect minors, New argued that analyzing their effects on the overall abortion rate is not methodologically sound.

New closed his criticism by calling on CACG to publicly oppose both the revocation of the Mexico City Policy and the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). He argued that doing so shows seriousness about supporting policies that will promote “a culture of life.”

CNA contacted Prof. Wright for further comment and received response by e-mail on Monday.

To Prof. New’s claim that there is no peer-reviewed research supporting a link between more generous welfare benefits and a significant reduction in the incidence of abortion, Wright replied that the answer depends in part upon the data used and referred to his response to New for further information.

Saying that there is definitely research to suggest that restrictive laws reduce the abortion rate, Wright added:

“I never suggested that this research doesn't exist, only that the answer depends on the data used and the time period covered. In the first round of research, in fact, we found that restrictions on Medicaid funding for abortion decreased the abortion rate.”

He said he could make no comment on New’s contention that it is not methodologically sound to analyze parental involvement laws, which directly affect only minors, on the overall abortion rate.

“I haven't analyzed teenage abortion data,” Wright told CNA. “New is raising this issue to get reporters to write on these laws rather than the main findings of my research which suggest that the abortion rate is responsive to socioeconomic factors as well.

“The abortion rate, my research suggests, is responsive to male employment, economic assistance and poverty in the 1990s when the United States saw a dramatic decline in the abortion rate.”

Wright noted he has responded at length to New in his comment posted at the CACG’s website and reported that he posted a 30-page working paper online for public scrutiny when he updated the study in November.

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