By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research
Editor’s note. NRL News Today ran this story back in December. We are reposting it because the flawed and/or misleading conclusions in the BMC Women’s Health journal study keep resurfacing.
There’s a new study out there claiming to uncovered evidence that having an abortion enables women to have what the Huffington Post describes as “more positive views on life”(12/15/15). Really?
Here’s a quick summary of just some of the problems with the study. This study isn’t a random sample of women, or even aborting women. The measures it uses are somewhat amorphous and ambiguous.
Moreover, for women who did abort, the study tells us very little about their long-term reactions. It doesn’t demonstrate that aborting women were better off than their non-aborting counterparts. And as so typical of these studies, it doesn’t even show what the authors and their media allies want you to believe it shows!
And as we prepare to critique this latest study, recall an earlier NRL News Today analysis which found that within a week more than a third of those women who were “denied” their abortion were unwilling to say that having an abortion would have been a right decision.
What the study studied
The study, “The effect of abortion on having and achieving aspirational one-year plans” appears in the BMC Women’s Health journal, published online November 11, 2015. The authors, Ushma Upadhyay, Antonia Biggs, and Diana Greene Foster are all associated with the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health of the University of California – San Francisco. UCSF has notoriously and deservedly been dubbed as America’s “abortion academy.”
This study uses the same data set as the flawed “Turnaway” study that we’ve examined in great detail previously. That study sought to compare the outcomes of women who had first-trimester abortions as well as those who had abortions right up to a clinic’s gestational limit with those women who were “denied” abortions because they were so far along in their pregnancies, the clinic couldn’t or wouldn’t’ abort their babies.
Each of these was considered a separate “study group.” It claimed women were happier if they received the abortions than if they were “denied” them. But as we explained in our earlier critique, it ignored or glossed over a number of important issues that neutralized a lot of the researchers’ conclusions or put them, at a minimum, in seriously question.
This newly-released study is presented as if it uncovers significant new data supporting abortion’s positive effects on a woman’s life. In truth, its findings don’t tell us a whole lot more than what the researchers tried to tell us in the original Turnaway study. And if you read carefully, by no means does it clearly support such a claim.
In their baseline interview at the Turnaway study’s beginning, Upadhyay and the UCSF team simply asked the women a broad open-ended question about what their life expectations were for a year later. They kept in touch with those women and once twelve months had passed, asked them whether those expectations had been realized.
Women’s responses to that initial open-ended question ranged from how she expected to feel a year later to hopes that she might get a new car. Some women gave multiple responses.
Researchers tried to group these responses around eight general categories – child-related, financial, residence, employment, emotional, educational, relationship status, and other. Then they tried to identify these as positive (“aspirational”), neutral, or negative.
What the study did … and didn’t find
The overwhelming impression in much of the news coverage is that women having the abortions were more successful in achieving their positive life goals than those who were “denied” abortions.
But this is not what the study actually claims! It couldn’t.
The authors admit that “There was no difference by study group in the achievement of aspirational plans among the women who reported them.”
Those who were “turned away” from their sought-after abortions and ended up parenting their children met 46.2% of their aspirational goals.
Of those who had first-trimester abortions, fewer–44.7%–met their aspirational goals.
What about those who had abortions near the clinic’s gestational limits? Only a minor uptick–48.3%.
(There were 64 women in a “non-parenting” Turnaway group who either ended up aborting elsewhere, miscarrying, or allowing their baby to be adopted; 52.3% of those women achieved their aspirational plans.)
The authors attempt to say that there was a difference in the initial projections of the women’s expectations–in other words that those women who aborted expressed more positive aspirations in their initial interviews than those women who were “denied” abortions.
Upadhyay and colleagues said the expressed expectations of women who aborted were considerably more positive or “aspirational” in that first interview which took place within a week of the occurrence of their abortion than they were for women who did not abort : 84.3% for those who had a first-trimester abortions; 85.6% for those who aborted near the gestational limit; but 56.3% for those of the women “denied” abortions who ended up parenting a child.
In denial about denial
This sounds profound and troubling until one puts this finding in context. These are the expressions of women right after they have had their abortions or after being “denied” an abortion they were expecting would solve their “problems.”
As those who have studied women’s post-abortion reactions know, a woman’s initial reaction after an abortion is often one of “relief,” a temporary feeling that the immediate crisis that has been hanging over her head is over and done with. The full psychological import of what has occurred is often not entirely realized until months or even years after the event, and reactions can be severe. But the immediate feelings and expectations may well be positive.
Women trying unsuccessfully to schedule late abortions would have wrestled with this decision for several months before coming to the conclusion that abortion is her way out. For her, it may initially be very upsetting to be told that she cannot have the abortion. Occupying her mind will be the idea that everything she thought had been resolved is going to have to be dealt with again, that she is going to have to make the big alterations to her life plans she had dreaded.
It is at precisely this point–within a week of that “denial”–and before the baby was born that researchers asked these women what their expectations were for the future.
A “measurable” difference?
This gets tricky so stay with me. There is another way that the authors try to come at the issue. They argue that aborting women are both more likely to have aspirational goals and achieve them. This is a slightly different claim than the first and deeply misleading.
Percentage-wise, the likelihood that a given woman, aborting or not, would achieve her aspirational goals was about the same–generally less than 50%. But women who’d aborted initially expressed more positive goals. Thus, while the percentage would be essentially the same for all the groups, if aborting women express more goals, they had more chances of seeing one of their aspirational expectations ended up being fulfilled.
To make sure we’re clear, a woman who had aborted might express, say, four positive expectations. A woman “denied” an abortion and still coming to terms with her new future, might express only one.
It isn’t that the aborting woman was any more likely to see any of her particular positive goals fulfilled, but simply that she because expressed more of those kinds of goals in the first place, so her chances of seeing at least one of those realized was greater.
And this is the statistical construct that the UCSF researchers are using to try to bolster their case.
So, because they expressed more of those aspirational [positive] goals, it could be said that 45.6% of women who aborted near the gestational limit and 47.9% of those who were “turnaways” who did not end up parenting (due to miscarriage, obtaining an abortion elsewhere, or allowing the child to be adopted) had and achieved a measurable” aspirational plan. But only 30.4% of those who decided to have and raise their children after being “denied” abortions had and achieved their aspirational goals.
Why? Ultimately because they expressed fewer goals for reasons we’ve already addressed.
A percentage isn’t given, but data charts indicate that women who aborted in the first trimester had and saw more of their aspirational goals achieved than the parenting turnaways but less than those women who aborted near the gestational limit.
It is hard to critique this claim because authors do not offer much specific data for it.
Researchers say they attempted to separate “measurable” goals, e.g., having a job, from those they felt were not measurable, e.g., achieving greater “stability.” But which goals qualified as “aspirational” involved value judgments on the researchers’ part.
Graduating from school, finding a better paying job would obviously be positive, but whether a woman had moved to a different country, gotten a divorce, or ended contact with her partner were also considered “aspirational” goals by researchers.
Researchers also measured emotional factors such as “satisfaction” or happiness that are hard to quantify and are particularly open to interpretation or suggestion. For example, what would a woman, who is being asked a year after her abortion about her feelings about that decision, be expected to tell a pro-abortion researcher?
Also evaluated were plans or statements about a woman’s children, her expectations about what having the abortion or having the child would involve or how that would impact other children.
Some projections are obviously more positive than others (“my [other] daughter will be done with the first year of high school” versus “I’ll be running back and forth to day care having to pay someone to watch my child”). But the particular positive or negative focus of that initial expectation may be in part be due to whether a woman was in the midst of reassessing or recalibrating her goals in light of her recently being “denied” the abortion.
Despite a lengthy text and pages of charts, the authors do not break down these individual categories of aspirations by study group. So we do not know whether the additional aspirational goals researchers say were achieved by the aborting women a year out were across the board or clustered in the particular categories of child-related financial, residential, relationship, educational, employment, emotional or “other” goals.
The authors say that “turnaways” were less likely to have vocational goals compared to women having abortions and that there was a greater focus on relationship goals among women who aborted near the gestational limits, for example. But how this skewed the analysis or made it more likely for one group to achieve their aspirations than the other is not revealed. Certain goals, e.g., breaking up with a boyfriend, may be easier to achieve than others, such as getting a well-paying job.
We don’t learn much
Contrary to the media hype, in the end, this study doesn’t tell us a whole lot. Is it any shock that women, right after having an abortion and being affirmed in that decision by clinic staffers, are more likely to experience a sense of “relief”? Or that they also are likely to be somewhat more optimistic about their futures than women who have just been told they can’t have the abortion they believed would solve their problems? This is not really surprising and doesn’t necessarily tell us something we didn’t already know or at least suspect.
We don’t have enough details in this study to tell us whether, or to what extent, women in any of these study groups were actually better off a year after their abortion or the birth of their baby. The best we know is to what some (vague) extent their initial expectations were met. And no one fares particularly well in this regard. Authors tell us that “While most women in all groups had positive one-year plans, fewer than half of the goals were achieved within one year.”
While some may get the impression that the study results, if valid, could be applied to the larger population of women, this is not some random sample, but specifically a sample of women who were all convinced at some point that abortion was their best option. Some had abortions, some did not, but all sought them, all believed abortion was their best solution.
Surprisingly, though, even within this group of women committed to abortion, there were women who ended up having children. Despite the biases and attitudes of the researchers, apparently these women saw and found a way forward. Some did so relatively quickly, some as time went on.
This study says the parenting “Turnaways” were initially less optimistic (not surprising, given that they were just coming to terms with their abortion “solution” being taken away). However we know, from earlier data published by UCSF in the original “Turnaway” study that within a week after their “denial”–even before the baby was actually born–35% of those women were no longer willing to say that having the abortion would have been the right decision.
And we know that, one year after the birth, whatever their expectations, 86% were living with the baby, 59% perceived their relationships as good or very good, and nearly half (48%) had full-time jobs.
Outcomes for jobs or relationships a year out among women having abortions were not considerably better in the original Turnaway study, and we know from this latest study that having the abortion did not translate into a woman’s aspirations generally being met
Leaving women alone
It is easy from coverage of the latest study to get the impression that having an abortion enables a woman to achieve positive life goals like finishing school, finding a better job, or improving their relationships. But, to reiterate, this is not what this study shows.
If anything, it indicates that women seeking abortions often come to believe that having their baby killed will enable them to achieve these life goals, but the data presented here doesn’t support that.
What it does demonstrate is not that women aborting are better off, but perhaps that the abortion industry has been successful in marketing its deadly product with a certain segment of the population, making them believe that abortion offers them a brighter future.
But what do women actually get?
We do know that women “turned away” from having an abortion may get a blessing they never expected, the opportunity to see that child grow up and thrive over the years. This is something aborting women will never experience with their child, no matter what their aspirations.