On March 6, 2006,
The New York Times ran a front-page article arguing that
parental involvement laws have been ineffective at reducing the
incidence of abortion among teens. The
authors collected data from six states that recently passed
parental involvement legislation. They found that, both before and
after the enactment of parental involvement laws, the ratio of
abortions to births for minors closely tracks the ratio of
abortions to births for 18- to 19-year-olds, who would not be
directly affected by the law. Hence, the Times reporters
argue that parental involvement laws have had little impact on the
childbearing decisions of teens.
The effect of parental
involvement laws is a topic that has long been neglected by the
mainstream media. In fact, this article marks the first time in
recent years that a mainstream media organization has reported on
this issue. Regrettably, however, some real shortcomings are
evident in the methods that the Times reporters used to
collect and analyze their data.
shortcomings led them to arrive at incorrect conclusions about the
effect of parental involvement laws. Contrary to their claims,
properly analyzed data provide solid evidence that parental
involvement laws have been effective at reducing the incidence of
abortion among minors.
In particular, there
exist six primary problems with the Times's data collection
and data analysis.
Problem #1: Using
Questionable Data from Arizona
Arizona's Department of Health
Services changed its abortion reporting requirements in 2004, the
year after the state's parental consent law was enacted. This
renders any analysis of Arizona's parental consent law highly
suspect. The Times reporters should have noted this change
in reporting requirements or else excluded the Arizona data
from their analysis.
Problem #2: Relying on
Data from State Health Departments, Which Most Academic Researchers
Do Not Use
departments are generally not considered reliable sources of
abortion data. Academic researchers conducting research on the
incidence of abortion almost always obtain their data from either
the Alan Guttmacher Institute or the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC). The Alan Guttmacher Institute obtains data
from a comprehensive survey of abortion providers. The CDC does
obtain their data from the states but clearly notes any changes in
state collection mechanisms.
Problem #3: Using the
Ratio of Abortions to Births as the Only Metric for
measure the incidence of abortion by comparing the ratio of
abortions to births. However, many other researchers use the
abortion rate, which is the number of abortions performed per
thousand women of childbearing age. Furthermore, the abortion
rate can also be calculated for specific groups of women, such as
women ages 15- 17 or Hispanic women. The abortion rate is often a
better metric for two reasons.
First, birthrates often
fluctuate for a variety of reasons. As a result, the ratio of
abortions to births may fluctuate for reasons that have little to
do with the actual incidence of abortion.
involvement laws could possibly affect the sexual behavior of
teens. After passage of such a law, teens may be more likely to use
birth control or less likely to engage in sexual activity. Using
the ratio of abortions to births would not fully capture the impact
that these laws have on teen sexual behavior.
It should be noted that
a recent New England Journal of Medicine study that examines
the impact of the Texas parental involvement law makes
extensive use of abortion rate statistics from that state.
Problem #4: Comparing
Only the First Full Year After a State Began Enforcing a Parental
Law to the Last Full Year Before the Law
One of the problems
that researchers of state legislation frequently encounter is
obtaining information about the enforcement date of many of
these laws. As a result, it is typically safest to compare data
from multiple years before the law was passed to data from multiple
years after the law was passed. This allows researchers to be more
certain that they are comparing data from before and after the
enforcement of legislation.
considering data from a range of years provides researchers with
more data points and allows them to present their results with a
higher degree of statistical confidence. The fact that the
Times reporters consider only two data points from every
state, instead of a range of years, therefore limits their
Problem #5: Failure to
Weight the Data
When analyzing data
from a number of states, it is appropriate to give states with
greater population more weight than states with less population. In
the Times study, the authors should have weighted data from
Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia more heavily than data from Idaho
and South Dakota. Since there are relatively few abortions and teen
pregnancies in Idaho and South Dakota, chance variation in the data
could easily skew the results. Since Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia
have more pregnancies, births, and abortions, we can be more
confident in data collected from these states.
Problem #6: Using
18-19-Year-Olds as the Only Reference Point for Minors
The authors of the
Times article assume that the abortion ratio for minors
should be correlated with the abortion ratio for teens ages 18-19.
However, this is not necessarily the case. Since a higher
percentage of 18-19-year-olds are married, a higher percentage
of pregnancies among 18-19-year-olds are likely intentional.
Furthermore, since many teens go away to school, the 18- and
19-year-olds residing in a particular state might be much
different demographically from the 13-17-year-olds who reside
in the same state. At any rate, a better reference point for
minors in a state that passed a parental involvement law might
be minors in other states.
To further analyze the
Times findings, I decided to replicate their findings while
avoiding these shortcomings.
First, abortion data from
Arizona were not analyzed.
all data on the
incidence of abortion were obtained from publicly available CDC
Third, in addition to
examining abortion ratios, I considered the abortion rates for both
13-17-year-olds and 18-19-year-olds.
I compared the
average abortion rate in the three years before each law was passed
to the average abortion rate for all of the years after the
legislation was passed.
Fifth, I weighted each state's
data by the population of females aged 13-17 residing in that
state. This ensures that the trends in larger states will have more
weight. Furthermore, it guarantees that chance variation in states
with small populations will not bias the findings.
Sixth, overall, I ran two
comparisons. I compared the abortion rate for minors to the
abortion rate for 18-19-year-olds both before and after enactment
of the parental involvement legislation. (See Table 1.) I then did
another comparison using the abortion ratio rather than the
abortion rate. (See Table 2.) More detailed results are given in
In both comparisons,
the decline in the incidence of abortion was larger for
13-17-year-olds than for 18-19-year-olds. Contrary to the claims of
the Times reporters, properly analyzed data provide solid
evidence that parental involvement laws have been effective at
reducing the incidence of abortion among minors.
It is true that when we
analyze the abortion ratio, the decline in the incidence of
abortion among 13- 17-year-olds is only slightly larger than the
decline in the incidence of abortion for 18-19-year-olds. However,
this begs an important question: Are these comparisons the best way
to measure the efficacy of parental involvement laws? Some
evidence suggests that they are not.
In their article, the
Times reporters assume that there is a natural correlation
between the abortion ratio for minors and the abortion ratio
for women aged 18-19. However, there is good reason to believe
that the childbearing decisions of 18- and 19-year-olds may differ
from the decisions of minors. Since a higher percentage of 18-
19-year-olds are married, a higher percentage of pregnancies among
18-19-year-olds are likely intentional. Furthermore, since many
teens leave their state to attend college, the 18- and 19-year-olds
residing in a particular state might be much different
demographically from minors 13-17 years of age who reside in the
same state. It is thus entirely possible that abortion trends of
18-19-year-olds may differ from the abortion trends for
In short, we cannot be
entirely sure of any correlation between the incidence of
abortion for minors and the incidence of abortion for 18- and
19-year-olds. Therefore, a better comparison might be to compare
the incidence of abortion among minors in states that recently
passed parental involvement laws to the incidence of abortion among
minors in other states. This comparison can even be taken a
step further. We can see how the incidence of abortion among minors
changes relative to the incidence of abortion among 18- and
19-year-olds both in states that did pass parental involvement
legislation and in states that did not do so.
Overall, I ran two
comparisons. I compared changes in the abortion rate for minors and
for teens aged 18-19 in the five states that enacted parental
involvement laws and in 35 other states that did not enact parental
involvement legislation. (See
Table 3). I then ran a similar set of comparisons using the
abortion ratio rather than the abortion rate. (See Table 4). More
detailed results are given in the Appendix.
This set of comparisons
clearly demonstrates the efficacy of parental involvement
legislation. In both comparisons, the largest decline in the
incidence of abortion was always among minors who lived in states
where a parental involvement law was passed. This is consistent
with our expectations.
More important, the
decline in the minor abortion ratio, relative to the abortion
ratio for women aged 18-19, is considerably larger in states
that have passed parental involvement laws than in states that have
not done so. This statistic holds true for abortion rates as well.
This provides very solid evidence of the efficacy of parental
Indeed, the New York
Times attempted to show that, in states that passed parental
involvement laws, the decline in the abortion ratio for minors was
similar to the decline in the abortion ratio for women aged 18-19.
What the Times reporters failed to realize is that the
abortion ratio for minors was increasing relative to the
abortion ratio for women aged 18-19 in other states. Therefore,
states that passed parental involvement laws were more successful
at preventing teen abortions relative to other states.
Regrettably, the Times' use of a faulty baseline gives the
incorrect impression that parental involvement laws are
This analysis adds to
the body of social science evidence suggesting that parental
involvement laws are effective at reducing the incidence of
abortion. Indeed, comprehensive studies done by public health
researchers, political scientists, and economists that have
appeared in journals as diverse as the Journal of Policy
Analysis and Management, Journal of Health
Economics, and Contemporary Economic Policy have
found evidence that parental involvement laws are correlated with
reductions in teen abortion rates. Separate
state-specific studies that examined parental involvement laws
in Minnesota and Massachusetts have also provided evidence that
parental involvement laws reduce the teen abortion rate.
Even as recently as
March 2006, The New England Journal of Medicine released a
study looking at the impact of the Texas parental notification
law that was passed in 2000. Using an approach that was similar to,
but more methodologically rigorous than, the approach used by the
Times reporters, the authors arrived at conclusions that
were strikingly different. They found that after passage of this
parental notification law, the abortion rate for minors fell
more sharply than the abortion rate for 18-year-olds-who would be
unaffected by the law.
In summary, through a
flawed analysis of the data and selective coverage of the social
science research, The New York Times attempts to make the
case that parental involvement laws are ineffective. However,
better data, better analysis, and a more thorough reporting of the
academic literature leads to the exact opposite conclusion:
namely, that parental involvement laws have been effective
at reducing the incidence of abortion among minors.
Michael J. New,
Ph.D., is Visiting Health Policy Fellow at The Heritage Foundation
and an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University
Between States Enacting Parental Involvement Laws and Other
Andrew Lehren and John
Leland, "Scant Drop in Abortions Seen If Parents Are Told," The
New York Times, March 6, 2006, p. A1.
Theodore Joyce, Robert
Kaestner, and Silvie Coleman, "Changes in Abortions and Births and
the Texas Parental Involvement Law," New England
Journal of Medicine, Vol. 354, No. 10 (March 9, 2006), pp.
The 35 other states
that released data on minor abortions every year from 1994 to 2002
were Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut,
Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts,
Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska,
Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North
Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina,
Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and
"The Economic Impact of State Policy Restrictions on Abortion:
Parental Consent and Notification Laws and Medicaid Funding
Restrictions," Journal of Policy Analysis and Management,
Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer 1993), pp. 498-511; Rebecca Blank, Christine
George, and Rebecca London, "State Abortion Rates: The Impact of
Policies Providers, Politics, Demographics, and Economic
Environment," Journal of Health Economics, Vol. 15, No. 5
(October 1996), pp. 513-553; and Robert Ohsfeldt and Stephan
Gohman, "Do Parental Involvement Laws Reduce Adolescent Abortion
Rates?" Contemporary Economic Policy, Vol. 12, No. 2 (April
1994), pp. 65-76.
Virginia Cartoof and
Lorraine Klerman, "Parental Consent for Abortion: Impact of the
Massachusetts Law," American Journal of Public Health,
Vol. 76, No. 4 (April 1986), pp. 397-400, and James Rogers, Robert
Boruch, George Storms, and Dorothy DeMoya, "Impact of the Minnesota
Parental Notification Law on Abortion and Birth," American
Journal of Public Health, Vol. 81, No. 3 (March 1991), pp.
Joyce et al.,
"Changes in Abortions and Births and the Texas Parental Involvement