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A closer look at Bachmann’s ’30 percent increase in abortions’ claim

Rep. Michele Bachmann has warned that passage of the health-care reform legislation would result in a huge jump in the number of abortions in the United States. Is that true?

Over the weekend, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) warned that passage of the health-care reform legislation would result in a huge jump in the number of abortions in the United States.

“We know from the Alan Guttmacher Institute that if there is taxpayer funding of abortion, there will be 30 percent more abortions,” she said at a press conference.

Given that an estimated 1.2 million abortions are performed in the United States each year, a 30 percent increase would mean an additional 360,000 abortions.

That seemed a rather large and, frankly, unlikely number to me.

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When I asked Bachmann’s spokesperson, David Dziok, where the 30 percent statistic came from, he referred me to an article on the Guttmacher Institute’s website, which includes this statement: “Studies published over the course of two decades looking at a number of states concluded that 18-35% of women who would have had an abortion continued their pregnancies after Medicaid funding was cut off.”

The website cites one study in particular (conducted in North Carolina and published in 1999), which found that “about one-third of women who would have had an abortion if support were available carried their pregnancies to term when the abortion fund was unavailable.”

Nuanced numbers

I then spoke with Rebecca Wind, senior communications officer for the Guttmacher Institute in New York. She seemed to audibly sigh when I told her what I was calling about.

“There’s been a lot of numbers flying around and a lot of misuse of data,” she told me.

The Guttmacher Institute statistics cited by Bachmann’s office come with all sorts of caveats, she said.

Wind explained that although the Guttmacher Institute does report that if the so-called Hyde Amendment (which has banned federal Medicaid coverage of abortions since 1976) were repealed, the number of abortions in the U.S. would increase about one third — but only among Medicaid-enrolled women and only in states that don’t themselves currently subsidize abortions for poor women. (FYI: Minnesota is one of the 17 states that does subsidize abortions of Medicaid enrollees.)

But, of course, the Hyde amendment isn’t going to be repealed under the new health reform legislation. So the whole issue is moot.

Still, even if the Hyde amendment were repealed, noted Susan Cohen, director of governmental affairs at the Guttmacher Institute, in a “Reality Check” article published in the Guttmacher Policy Review last August, 

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that would translate to only a 5 percent increase in the total number of abortions in these states, because relatively few women in any given state are actually enrolled in Medicaid. And because many of the most populous states (such as New York and California) already use their own money to pay for abortion services for poor women, the national impact of repealing the Hyde amendment would be even smaller: The number of abortions among Medicaid-eligible women nationwide would be expected to increase by approximately 33,000, a figure that would represent an increase in the number of abortions nationwide of only 2.5 percent.

The Massachusetts experience

“The Hyde amendment bans federal dollars for abortion, and health care reform didn’t change that one bit,” said Kathi Di Nicola, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Minnesota and North and South Dakota, in a phone interview on Monday. “What we do know is that increasing women’s access to health care is the surest way to decrease the rate of abortions.”

And, indeed, that seems to be what happened in Massachusetts after it enacted its “Commonwealth Care” legislation in 2006 that expanded health care to almost all state residents. A paper published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported that during the first two years of the expanded coverage, the overall number of abortions fell 1.5 percent.

Among teenagers the decline in abortions was even greater: 7.4 percent.

And, as the study’s author, Patrick Whelan, MD, a pediatric rheumatologist at Harvard University (and president of Catholic Democrats), points out, these decreases occurred during a period of rising birth rates and an increase in the state’s overall population.

Granted, the decrease in the abortion rate began in Massachusetts (and nationwide) in the 1990s, but expanding health care certainly hasn’t reversed the trend.

And it certainly hasn’t increased it by 30 percent.

“As of February 2010,” writes Whelan, “more than 439,000 additional people were covered by health insurance [under Commonwealth Care], yet the most recent data indicate that the number of abortions in Massachusetts simultaneously reached its lowest level since at least the 1970s.”

Whelan also points to a report [PDF] by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good that found that Medicaid funding has a “statistically insignificant effect” on the abortion rate. And what factor was most likely to decrease the likelihood that a woman will seek an abortion?

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