By Rebecca Oas Ph.D.
June 25, 2015 (C-Fam) — For half a century, the Guttmacher Institute has been attempting the “Epic Split” of attempting to frame itself as both an impartial source of facts about human sexuality and reproduction and an advocacy organization dedicated to promoting “a comprehensive view of sexual and reproductive health” including the rights that would enable women (and men!) to …”exercise the right to choose safe, legal abortion.”
Apparently, it’s so pleased with its ability to track the incidence of abortion in the United States – “routinely recognized as the most reliable, including by the [Centers for Disease Control],” that it wants to start dictating how state and national government abortion tracking should be done as well.
A recent Guttmacher Policy Review article by Joerg Dreweke titled “Abortion Reporting: Promoting Public Health, Not Politics,” characterizes Guttmacher’s efforts as both complementing and surpassing government efforts to track abortion incidence, complains that government data are slow and incomplete, and laments the fact that not all of those collecting or using the data agree with Guttmacher that abortion is a perfectly good thing.
According to the article, reporting on abortion incidence exists solely to advance public health, and should not be used to further a political agenda. Since abortion is currently legal in the United States (with some restrictions that vary by state), Guttmacher seeks to characterize abortion as simply a medical procedure like any other. Therefore, it is content to document the number of abortions done, the methods used, the gestational age, the basic demographic profile of the mother, and similar things. However, the type of data collection Guttmacher deems “politicized” and therefore negative, involves monitoring of compliance by abortion providers with state requirements such as pre-abortion counseling or parental notification in the case of a minor patient.
The main flaw in Guttmacher’s position is its assertion that any data collected on abortion must be solely for public health record-keeping and analysis. That is certainly one reason, but abortion is a matter of law and policy, not just health, and data collection to monitor compliance with legal obligations is also a legitimate purpose. Guttmacher is not proposing that these two purposes should be accomplished separately (which would inevitably be duplicative), but instead argues that the legal restrictions themselves are the problem. The report variously refers to them as “intrusive,” “onerous,” and “unwarranted,” and complains that monitoring compliance “serves no discernible public health purpose.” In other words, if we can’t get rid of legal restrictions on abortion altogether, we should at least stop trying to ensure they are followed. Lest we forget, the gruesome career of Dr. Kermit Gosnell was enabled not by a lack of regulation, but a total lack of monitoring.
Guttmacher likewise criticizes “politically-charged” language in some states’ reporting forms, particularly those that refer to the fetus as an unborn child. Statistics about the reasons why women have abortions are deemed to be “important questions that are too intrusive, as well as unnecessary, for the government to collect itself,” although they do allow that nongovernmental organizations – like Guttmacher, for instance – might obtain such information through the use of voluntary surveys, alongside information about “the cost and logistics of arranging for an abortion.”
As a side note, although the legal contexts from country to country are different, most other nations that allow abortion require justification on specific grounds (life of the mother, fetal abnormality, rape, etc.). In England, where abortion is effectively available on demand, the most recent statistics show that 98% of abortions are done on the grounds of the mother’s mental health, a justification which is not supportable by medical evidence. Where abortion is available on demand, whether in practice, by law or both, the vast majority of abortions are done for social, rather than health, reasons.
But Guttmacher would rather we didn’t collect that data:
“Governmental public health reporting systems must be limited to collecting basic incidence and demographic data for legitimate public health purposes. Official governmental reporting systems that go beyond this limited scope have the effect of stigmatizing women obtaining abortions or harassing abortion providers for the purpose of promoting an antiabortion policy agenda. Using a public health surveillance system for this purpose cannot be justified on any grounds.”
(A lot hinges on that word “legitimate” – Guttmacher doesn’t think life in the womb is a legitimate public health concern when it comes to abortion; others disagree.)
There is a simple matter of conflicting interests here. Any government-mandated reporting on the incidence of abortion has to be done in collaboration with the entities that provide abortions. Depending on the political situation of the particular state, the relationship between abortion clinics and the governments monitoring them may be anywhere from friendly to hostile. Because of its explicitly pro-abortion stance, the Guttmacher Institute is likely to have access to more willing participation from abortion clinics when it comes to collecting data. However, it is also more likely to withhold from the public information that could potentially put abortion in a negative light. While Guttmacher may have officially separated itself from Planned Parenthood (the nation’s largest abortion provider and its own founding organization), its position on abortion remains unchanged. And abortion remains as much a politically-charged issue in the United States (and the world) as it was when Guttmacher was founded.
Leaving abortion reporting in the hands of pro-abortion advocacy groups is not good enough (see Gosnell), and the Guttmacher Institute is a veritable Tobacco Institute of abortion research. While Guttmacher is certainly free to publish its own findings, its argument that government entities should collect less data on abortion for fear that it might be used to make abortion look bad is simply disingenuous and smacks of desperation:
“However, in the current political climate, merely opening a discussion about creating a more robust government abortion surveillance system could well result in antiabortion policymakers in the states—and potentially even at the federal level—exploiting this issue in pursuit of their increasingly aggressive antiabortion agenda.”
The bottom line: Guttmacher is free to add its two cents to the debate, but it doesn’t get to make the rules.
Editor’s note. This appeared at c-fam.org