New York Times published a front-page article, "Scant Drop in
Abortion Rates if Parents are Told," that reported the newspaper's
conclusion that recently-enacted parental involvement laws have not
reduced the incidence of abortion among teens.
On its surface, the newspaper's statistical analysis appears
convincing, but a closer look at its data and methodology call its
conclusions into question.
article'sreporters tracked the percentage of pregnancies among
girls under age 18 that end in abortion before and after the
passage of parental-involvement legislation in six states. The
passage of such legislation, according to the Times'
analysis, has little effect on the percentage of pregnant minors
who obtain abortions. Furthermore, says the article, following the
enactment of parental-involvement legislation, minors' childbearing
decisions continued to track those of women ages 18 to 19, who are
not directly impacted by parental-involvement legislation.
analysis, however, contains several significant shortcomings.
First, it examines data from only six of the approximately twelve
states that have passed parental involvement laws since the
mid-1990s. Second, its abortion data come from state health
departments, which researchers agree tend to be unreliable;
academics who study the incidence of abortion nearly always use
data from either the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or the Alan
Guttmacher Institute (AGI) because these sources employ more
reliable collecting and reporting mechanisms. Finally, the
Times analyzes the percentage of pregnancies that end in
abortion rather than the percentage of teens who have abortions.
Because relatively few teens give birth each year, the
Times' measure can fluctuate dramatically, making the data
difficult to analyze properly.
Times ignores the likelihood that the presence of
parental-involvement laws may reduce abortions not only by
influencing the decisions of girls who are already pregnant, but
also by reducing the number of teenage girls who become pregnant at
all. An analysis of the percentage of total teen pregnancies that
end in abortion will not lend any great insight into the
effectiveness of parental-involvement laws in reducing abortions by
changing minors' sexual behavior.
Indeed, a more
rigorous analysis of parental-involvement laws, such as I performed last year, tells a considerably
different story. Using data on teen abortions from the Centers for
Disease Control (now updated to include every year until 2002, the
last year for which data are available) and population data from
the U.S. Census Bureau, I calculated more accurate teen abortion
rates than is possible with the Times' data. Teen abortion
rates reflect the approximate likelihood that a girl between the
ages of 13 and 17 in a particular state will undergo an abortion in
a particular year.
With this data, I
examined teen abortion rate in the states that the Times
reporters discussed in their article. Because Arizona's
parental-consent law took effect in 2003 and CDC data is
unavailable for years after 2002, I was unable to include Arizona
in this analysis. However, in three of the five other states
analyzed by the Times, I found significant reductions in the
teen abortion rates after the passage of parental-involvement laws.
In Texas, the teen abortion rate fell 25 percent since the passage
of a parental-notification law in 2000. Both Virginia and South
Dakota passed parental notification laws in 1997, and since that
time their teen abortion rates each declined by over 33
It is true that in
the remaining two states the Times examined, Idaho and
Tennessee, the passage of parental-involvement laws had little
immediate effect on the abortion rate. However, additional
information about each state provides some important context, which
is ignored in the Times article. Idaho already had one of
the lowest teen abortion rates in the country prior to the passage
of its parental-consent law. Similarly, while Tennessee's teen
abortion rate fluctuated little in the years following the passage
of its parental-consent law in 2000, its teen abortion rate fell
sharply in the year before the passage of the law. Tennessee's
parental-consent law may have played a role in preserving this
states other than those included in the Times article also
supports the effectiveness of parental-involvement laws. In the
early 1990s, Mississippi, Minnesota, and Nebraska passed
By the end of the decade, the teen abortion rates in all of these
states fell by half. Further research shows that
parental-involvement laws reduce the abortion rate among teens but
have considerably less impact on the overall abortion rate.
When teen abortion rates decline and overall abortion rates remain
fairly constant, it is safe to deduce that parental-involvement
laws are primarily responsible for the declines in teen abortion
rates-and not broad shifts in values or mores that happen to be
correlated with the passage of such legislation. Finally, other
academic studies published in peer-reviewed journals-also ignored
by the Times reporters-provide solid statistical evidence
that parental-involvement laws reduce the incidence of abortion
among minors when demographic and economic factors are held
It is regrettable
that the Times reporters refused to acknowledge academic
research that contradicts their conclusions. This continues the
newspaper's trend of poor reporting on abortion statistics over the
last decade. For example, during the 2004 election season, the
Times reported Glen Harold Stassen's erroneous finding that
abortions had increased during the George W. Bush's presidency.
When the Alan Guttmacher Institute later released more
comprehensive data showing that abortions had actually declined
since President Bush's inauguration, the Times was among the
media outlets that failed to report the finding, much less correct
its own record.
reporters, like Stassen, ground their conclusions in data from the
health departments of a small sample of states. The Times'
analysis also overlooks much contradictory evidence rooted in
superior data. Policymakers and citizens should have access to
conclusions based on the highest quality data and research
methodology. Researchers, policy organizations, and media outlets
like The New York Times should be committed to upholding the
highest standards for the research that they present to the public.
In this case, the "The Paper of Record" fell far short of that
ideal. The Times could begin to remedy that failure by
making public its reporters' datasets and methodology, which so far
it has been unwilling to release.
Michael J. New,
Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama and a
former visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data