Assumptions

I’ve been a clinic escort for almost a year now. In this time, I have heard a lot of assumptions being made on the sidewalk. Protesters frequently make assumptions about clients and companions based on their age (assuming that the youngest woman in a group is the one obtaining the abortion), ethnicity (assuming that a client doesn’t speak English because of their appearance), and clothing (one protester routinely shouts “God is watching!” to women who enter the clinic, but shouted “Allah is watching!” to a client who was wearing a head scarf). Protesters also make broad assumptions about the reasons behind a client’s behavior. If a woman is crying, they assume that she must be crying because she knows that abortion is wrong, or because the escorts are making her cry. I would argue that it’s more likely that she’s crying because the protesters are crowding up next to her as she walks down the sidewalk, saying cruel things to her, or holding up graphic signs. The reality, however, is that none of us except the client knows why the client is upset. It’s best to not make assumptions.

The protesters’ assumptions range from infuriating (such as the ones I described above) to ridiculous (my favorite assumption is that the female clinic escorts are lesbians who have had abortions). One morning, I overheard one protester making some wild assumptions about probability. She rattled off the figure that one in four pregnancies end in a miscarriage[1]. And then she said that since there were four clients standing in the lobby (you can see where she’s going with this!)…that one of them must be miscarrying. A few fellow escorts and I had a good laugh about it later. How silly this protester was to extrapolate a finding (one in four pregnancies) to women (one in four women), and then to extrapolate even further to make a bold claim about a specific group of four women who were standing in the clinic!

But wait a minute. Isn’t it time we turned the mirror back on ourselves (pro-choice individuals) and examined our own claims to see if we might be making similar assumptions?

That’s right – I’m talking about the “1 in 3” slogan: “1 in 3 women will have an abortion in her lifetime!” If you’ve been involved in discussions about abortion, you’ve probably heard this figure. A quick Google search reveals an entire website devoted to this figure. I’ve heard fellow pro-choice individuals quote this figure or even use it to make generalizations about particular groups of women, such as suggesting that one-third of a given group of women will have an abortion.

I’ll be honest – things that fit nicely into a sound bite make me skeptical. So I did some investigating.

The “1 in 3” figure comes from a very legitimate, well-conducted study that was published in an peer-reviewed scientific journal. However, a close reading of the study reveals that there are very important caveats that are associated with this figure. This is true of any scientific study! I am not implying that the findings from this study are false or fraudulent in any manner. Rather, I am emphasizing the need to speak appropriately about the study’s findings, and not extrapolate too far.  Otherwise, you get this:

scinewscycle

http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1174

So, what does this study actually say? The researchers report that the data were collected by surveying women who were obtaining abortions during a particular time period. Because it’s impossible to survey every single woman who obtains an abortion, they (carefully, and appropriately) surveyed a large sample of women from clinics so that they could make inferences about a population (women in the United States). The researchers used estimates of first-abortion rates within specific age groups to estimate the lifetime incidence of abortion. To quote: “The cumulative first-abortion rate increases with age, and women aged 40 and older had a rate of 300.9 per 1,000 women. Put differently, an estimated 30.1% of women aged 15–44 in 2008 will have an abortion by age 45 if exposed to prevailing abortion rates throughout their reproductive lives.”  The researchers appropriately highlight the limitations for this finding: “Underreporting of abortions is common on nationally representative surveys of women. Our analysis assumes that women obtaining abortions were more likely to report previous terminations, but even in this clinical setting some patients may have failed to report them. This would mean that the estimate of the lifetime incidence of abortion is artificially high.” (Emphasis added by me, not the researchers).

Hm, that’s a lot to digest. It’s hard to imagine quoting the entire above passage when having a discussion about abortion prevalence. It’s a lot shorter to say “1 in 3 women will have an abortion.” And I understand – caveats and limitation aren’t sexy. It’s tempting to want a sound bite, something that surprises people and makes them sit up and pay attention. But misusing research findings, even unintentionally, does nothing to further our cause. It is misleading to assume that one-third of a given group of women (such as a group of female protesters standing on the sidewalk) will have an abortion, or that one-third of your friends will have an abortion. I am not implying that anyone who has used the “1 in 3” figure when discussing abortion has been intentionally trying to twist the facts or mislead people. What I am saying is that there are a lot of critical limitations to consider with research – things that don’t fit cleanly into sound bites or onto posters.

So what CAN we take away from this research? Rather than use the findings from this study to estimate how many of the women in our lives will have an abortion, perhaps it is more important (or more productive) to highlight the study’s finding that abortion is not limited to a specific group of women. These data reflect what escorts see on the sidewalk – women from all walks of life have abortions. Married women and unmarried women, women from various ethnic groups, women who are very young and women who are not so young, women of various socioeconomic statuses, women who already have children and women who do not have children. And women of various religious affiliations have abortions; the majority of women who had an abortion 2008 were religiously affiliated (yes, this even includes individuals who identified as Catholic and fundamentalist/born-again Protestant!). These findings resonate with an escort’s goal to not make assumptions about the cars who pull up to the curb at the clinic. Even if there is a pro-life sticker on the bumper, or a rosary hanging from the rear view mirror, the passengers in the car may still be seeking an abortion. Abortion is something that is chosen by a wide variety of women. Therefore, it’s certainly possible that someone in your life has had or will have an abortion, regardless of their life circumstances or demographic. You just can’t say (with certainty) that one-third of the women in your life have had or will have an abortion.

Finally, I want to make one additional point. In my reading of the study, there is one finding that truly stands out to me, but that seems to have been overshadowed by the “1 in 3” estimate. Although overall abortion rates declined approximately 8% from 2000 to 2008, there was one subgroup of women for whom abortion rates increased (by approximately 17%): women living in poverty. Given the significant financial burdens associated with abortion, we should be alarmed by this finding. The researchers suggest that legislative action aimed at restricting access to contraception, including abortion, may have an especially detrimental impact on women in poverty. I agree.

Anti-choice individuals make more than enough assumptions when it comes to abortion. We don’t need to be making any more. I propose that we extend our “don’t make assumptions” sidewalk policy to our general conversations about abortion. We will be most effective when we speak clearly and appropriately about the research on abortion – no assumptions needed.


[1] I was curious about the “one in four” claim and dug a little further.  It seems that estimates of miscarriage rates vary a bit, and recent research suggests that it’s fairly nuanced.