On Wednesday, Vox ran a story with the headline, “At least 100,000 Texas Women Have Resorted to Inducing their Own Abortions.” Soon, The Atlantic ran a similar headline, and Mother Jones tweaked its related story, with “Up to 240,000 Women Have Tried to Give Themselves Abortions in Texas.”
At first glance, these statistics seem surprising and, to a pro-lifer, saddening. But a closer inspection of the study all these headlines were pulled from shows the numbers are vague at best and misconstrued at worst.
Biased At the Outset
The organization who designed the survey, the Texas Policy Evaluation Project, which is associated with The University of Texas at Austin, has been reporting on abortions, self-induction, and reproduction for years. It’s their beat.
But they’re not nonpartisan, numbers-only scientists. In 2013, they published a study called “The Public Threat of Anti-Abortion Legislation.” Biased much? The study began, “Texas is only one of several states attempting to regulate abortion out of existence — a trend that should be deeply troubling to the medical community.” So suffice it to say these researchers enter their studies with a bit of a bias, one that leans towards fewer government restrictions on abortion rather than fewer abortions, period.
What the Survey Says
In addition to the researchers being biased, the report itself wasn’t particularly indicative of a huge trend of Texas women trying to give themselves abortions. Here’s its description of the study’s survey methods.
we asked women about abortion self-induction in two ways. First, we asked each respondent whether she thought her best friend had ever attempted to end a pregnancy on her own without medical assistance […] After asking women about their best friend, we then asked whether they themselves had ever tried to end a pregnancy without medical assistance.
Hold up. Why would a survey ask a woman if she thought her best friend “had ever attempted to end a pregnancy on her own”? Because that will ultimately inflate the desired response. “When asked about their best friends, 1.8% said they were sure their best friend had done this, and an additional 2.3% said they suspected she had done this.” Overall, 1.7 percent of women aged 18-49 reported that they had ever tried to end a pregnancy on their own. The study concludes, “This gives us a high estimate of 4.1% of adult women of reproductive age who have ever attempted abortion self-induction.”
Did you catch that math? The “high estimate of 4.1%” comes not only from the 1.7 percent of women who said they had attempted to self-induce, but from an additional two sets of numbers which are related to the “best friend,” which is also known as secondhand information—or, as they say in a court of law, hearsay.
For this particular survey, researchers asked 1,397 “non-institutionalized Texas-resident women between the ages of 18 and 49 to participate” and only 779 responded. So it makes a conclusion about the activities of women regarding self-inducing abortions in the entire state of Texas—a population of nearly 27 million—from a sampling of 779 women.
Without the “best friend” statistics, the survey would have concluded that, of 779 people, 13 had attempted to induce their own abortion. That yields the 1.7 percent reported low estimate.
Finally Crashes and Burns
But what about these dramatic headlines claiming anywhere from 100,000 to a whopping 240,000 women in Texas are giving themselves abortions? The study really flops when it reveals its projection methods at the end. “By applying these proportions to the 5,949,149 women aged 18-49 in Texas, we estimate that somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 women in this age range have tried to end a pregnancy on their own without medical assistance.”
While economists certainly use this method—taking a small sample and applying it broadly—all the time, to employ that in this context is disingenuous. The participants were asked to guess about a friend’s possible actions and several participants lived near the Mexico border, which differs drastically from say, Dallas or El Paso.
Some sociodemographic characteristics of note: Of those surveyed, 44 percent were Hispanic, 25 percent lived on or near the Texas-Mexico border—where the abortion-inducing drug misoprostol can be purchased without prescription—and 74 percent had some college or just high school education. These facts parallel the national abortion figures regarding women who seek abortions due to lack of family support, education, and accurate information.
The study admits that geography and ease of accessing misoprostol affects this issue. Saying because 13 out of 779 women have self-induced abortions means 100,000 to 240,000 women across Texas must have as well is like taking the city with the highest crime rate in Virginia (Portsmouth) and applying that crime rate to the entire state.
This Whole Line of Question Isn’t Good for Abortions
These numbers have been used to attack Texas’s decision to require abortion clinics to follow the basic health and safety regulations required of all outpatient surgery centers. The implication is that more women will be giving themselves chemical abortions if they don’t get surgical ones. For abortion-lovers, however, this should be a win, because it implies women can do their own abortions more cheaply and without the stigma and time spent going into a clinic. It also reveals a contradiction in the Left’s abortion push, because if they want to argue chemical abortions are more dangerous and surgical ones are therefore ideal, then why don’t they support ensuring those surgical abortions are indeed as safe as other surgeries through applying safety regulations equally?
Further, the survey asked women if they had ever tried to induce their own abortion, and since they are all childbearing-age women their answers would logically include the decades before Texas began its very recent scrutiny of abortion clinics. So if shocking numbers of self-inducers imply anything, it’s that high levels of surgical abortion access don’t stop women from performing DIY abortions. Maybe the abortion culture is the real stressor on women’s pregnancies, not so much their access to surgical abortion.
While the fact that women would consider giving themselves an abortion at all is sad and far from ideal, Texas’ decision to regulate abortion clinics is ultimately a boon for unborn babies and women’s health. Fewer abortion clinics will hopefully result in the death of fewer unborn babies and better health for the mothers carrying them, who will not have to endure abortion clinic chop shops, the side-effects of abortion, or pressure from friends and family members to abort their babies because that option exists.
How unfortunate the Texas Policy Evaluation Project is so determined to fuel the myth that fewer abortion clinics endanger women that it’s willing to publish surveys that are shoddy and misleading. How does that help women?