30 August 2006

Math Ignorance and Beauprez's Abortion Comment

Bob Beauprez has made headlines and drawn immense protests for claiming the 70% of African-American women's pregancies end in abortion. Here's what he said on Colorado Public Radio:

In some of our ethnic communities, we're seeing very, very high percentages of babies, children, pregnancies end in abortion. I've seen numbers as high as 70 percent, maybe even more, in the African-American community that I think is just appalling.

It's obvious to me where that came from, and yes, it is quite incorrect.

Ratios v. Percentages

School children are taught about ratios v. percentages. Many forget when they grow up. Bob Beauprez is among them.

According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States (Table 93), in 2001, the most recent year for which data were available when it went to print, there were 229 abortions per 1,000 live births to white mothers, and there were 686 abortions per 1,000 lives births to mothers whose race was black or other.

The second number looks a lot like 70%, but, in fact, it isn't anywhere close to 70%.

Translated into more familiar ways of providing statistics, 18.6% of births that end in either a live birth or a medically induced abortion involving a white woman end in a medically induced abortion. In contrast 40.7% of births that end in either a live birth or a medically induced abortion where the woman is not white end in a medically induced abortion.

It also bears mention that the statistic cited above, which is probably the source of Beauprez's comment, doesn't break out African-American women separately at all.

Only Considering Two Possibilities Out Of Three

The reason that government health officials are reluctant to use a percentage approach, rather than a ratio, is because a percentage creates the false inference that every abortion would have, but for the abortion, have resulted in a live birth. Pregnancies end one of three ways, commonly known as live births, miscarriages/still births and abortions. The ratio omits one of the possibilities.

About 59% of abortions are done in the first two months of pregnancy. About 89% are done in the first trimester, and most that are not, are done very shortly thereafter. A significant percentage of abortions, had they not been done, would have ended in a miscarriage, the third option, rather than a live birth.

Virtually all abortions are conducted after a pregnancy is clinically recognized (i.e. the woman knows she is pregnant at the time). About 25% of pregnancies which are clinically recognized end in miscarriage, most between the time the pregnancy is recognized, and the end of the 8th week of pregnancy. Thus, about 15% of pregnancies (25% of 59%) terminated by abortion would probably have ended in miscarriage, rather than live births. Failing to make this adjustment leaves you talking about apples and oranges, rather than using comparable units. And a percentage based on quantities stated in two different units isn't meaningful.

Thus, the correct statement is that in white women, about 16% of pregnancies that would have ended in live births are terminated by an abortion, while in non-white women, about 37% of pregnancies that would have ended in live births are terminated by an abortion.

Why Care?

This leaves plenty of people who are appalled by the fact that any abortions happen at all lots to complain about. Abortion is a not uncommon event in a woman's life, particularly in light of the fact that most women have multiple pregnancies in life. It is not a rare exception. On a lifetime basis, a large minority of women have had an abortion at least once, and among some women in some ethnic groups, for a variety of reasons, almost a majority will have had an abortion at least once in a lifetime.

The 37% number is high enough, and enough people are uncomfortable with that number as well, that I didn't see any of the critics of his inaccurate statement provide the correct number. Nobody on any side of the abortion debate thinks that it is good that this number is as high as it is today.

If Beauprez had used the correct number, noted that legal abortion is the law of the land, and had phrased it more sympathetically, in terms of the difficult conditions that push some women to choose to have abortions, rather than implicitly demonizing African American women as immoral, as he did, he could have avoided criticism and made a valid point. This is the sort of thing that Democratic candidate for Governor Bill Ritter, who is himself very uncomfortable with the number of abortions that take place in the United States, might have said.

But, for Bob Beauprez to say that, he would have had have a kind of compassion for people unlike himself that he lacks (despite the fact that a disproportionate share of the African-Americans in Colorado live in the 7th Congressional District that he represents), and he would also have had to expressed a strong desire to prevent unwanted pregnancies, something that the policies he champions (like opposition to emergency contraception availability and teen pregnancy prevention programs) fail to do.

Beauprez's mistake from a math perspective was two-fold. First, he failed to understand the difference between a percentage and a ratio that doesn't include all possibilities. Secondly, and more importantly, he was too out of touch with what one would expect reasonable number to be to know to be skeptical enough of the absurdly high number he quoted, especially in a highly sensitive area. He should have known to double check it before citing it.

The way he discussed the reality that drives the racial discrepencies in abortion rates was equally problematic.

Taken as a whole, this incident suggests that he doesn't really understand the abortion issue or the race issue very well. And, while he apologized for the math error, he didn't apologize for the deep flaws in his views of African-Americans in Colorado at all.


Sotosoroto said...

Arguing the math about an issue like this makes you come across as rather heartless.

Well-intentioned, but heartless.

Oh, and to touch upon the heart of the post: Killing is wrong.


Dex said...

like ants at a picnic....

thanks for the post. you should cross this at coconfo, if you haven't already. beauprez's statement's getting play over at eschaton.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

When issues are controversial, it is absolutely essential to keep the facts straight, as those are often the only things that people can agree upon at the beginning.

It is also crucial to keep focused on the possible. Ranting about banning abortion (a la South Dakota's legislature) is idiotic for a candidate for Governor when the law of the land under Roe and Casey is absolutely clear that this isn't a legitimate option.

Beauprez has made it clear that he doesn't care about the fact, that he doesn't care about what is possible, and that he isn't interested in taking the steps that are possible that can make the status quo better. He also makes clear that he doesn't give a shit about blacks.

It is little surprise that he's far behind in the polls and lagging in the money race.