World Abortion Estimates: An Audit Part VII:
When Agenda Trumps Accuracy

By Laura Antkowiak Hussey, M.P.M. and Randall K. O'Bannon, Ph.D.

In earlier parts of this series, we have seen how abortion advocates have grossly inflated estimates of the number of abortions performed overseas and then tried to use those inaccurate numbers to argue for worldwide legalization of abortion. These "experts" admit their numbers are "uncertain" but publicize them anyway, leading one to ask what matters most to these "statisticians": accuracy or agenda?


"Experts" at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) claim that there are some 46 million abortions performed in the world each year. Nearly half (20 million) they officially label so-called "unsafe abortions." Both WHO and AGI claim that 78,000 women die each year from these "unsafe abortions."

We have already seen how tenuous a basis there is for many of these numbers. In developing nations and regions, where the vast majority of these "unsafe abortions" and abortion-related maternal deaths are reported to occur, the basis for these numbers is often quite flimsy. Prevalent in these counts are extrapolations of "community surveys," which survey health care workers or the general population in a given area, or "expert estimates" in which local abortionists or abortion advocates pass on their

"educated guesses" based on their personal experience to statisticians at AGI or WHO. Then numbers are "adjusted" upwards to account for abortions and maternal deaths the statisticians believe the surveys and experts would have missed because of the reluctance of women to admit to something that might be painful, embarrassing, or illegal.

AGI and WHO admit their projections have problems. WHO, in its 1998 report Unsafe Abortion, said its estimates of "unsafe abortions" and abortion-related mortality "must be considered rough" and "necessarily have a high degree of uncertainty."

In a 1990 report on world abortions, AGI admitted that the data it used on "clandestine abortions" was "too uncertain to know whether the worldwide total is increasing or decreasing, since few studies in developing countries have provided accurate measures even for small areas. Combining the estimates that other authors have generally used with guesses as to the probable rates of abortions results in rough estimates of clandestine abortions" (emphasis added).1 There is nothing to indicate any broad improvement in data collection in later reports.

To the objective observer, the obvious question is why such groups would so fervently publicize "statistics" in which they have so little confidence. The answer, revealed in their own words below, is that agenda has a higher priority than accuracy.


How "Statistics" Serve the Abortion Agenda

The AGI says it believes its global abortion statistics prove that abortion and unintended pregnancy are "remarkably common" and that the "need" for abortion will always exist. Wrote Jeannie Rosoff (then AGI president) in the preface to AGI's 1999 worldwide abortion report, Sharing Responsibility, "We hope that by documenting that reality and presenting a compilation of what is known about abortion worldwide, this report will lead to greater understanding of, and more informed action on, a social and health issue of urgency to all - - women, families and nations."

What this "informed action" includes is clear from AGI's report. Calls for "improved access to reproductive health services" are bad enough, considering that to the UN and many international "family planning" groups, such services are thought necessarily to include abortion. Yet AGI goes further. It inevitably calls for all countries to "intensify and expand" or else continue to ensure "abortion services" that are "high quality and easily accessible." Among its "policy options" for countries where abortion is illegal or nearly illegal - - regardless of whether levels of abortion are relatively high or low - - AGI identifies the following:



Collecting data and publicizing the situation with regard to "unsafe abortion" is supposed to be a "first step" toward what AGI considers an appropriate response. AGI continues, "Where a more advanced level of awareness and political will to bring about change exists, countries might consider initiatives to introduce gradual or even total reforms in their abortion laws." As AGI apparently sees things, the "more advanced" countries are the ones which allow the killing of unborn children.

The World Health Organization also believes its maternal mortality estimates to be an important advocacy tool, even if they are not precise. WHO, in fact, identifies this as one of four reasons why researchers might use the cost-effective but imprecise "sisterhood method" (see "World Abortion Estimates, Part III: More Muddled Methods," NRL News, April 2003) to estimate maternal deaths. (The "sisterhood method" interviews women as to how their sisters died.)

In its 1997 report, "The Sisterhood Method for Estimating Maternal Mortality," WHO writes,

Whatever method countries adopt for measuring maternal mortality, it is important to remember that the absolute value of the maternal mortality ratio is not as important for programme or planning purposes than an analysis of WHY women are dying from pregnancy-related conditions.

Noble as this sounds, WHO fails to consider how a lack of accurate numbers can easily lead one to misidentify the problem and, hence, the needed solutions.

Oft-cited world mortality experts Christopher Murray and Alan Lopez end their 1996 cause-of-death report The Global Burden of Disease on a casual note as well. One could speculate that this may well reflect the attitude of the pro-abortion movement toward statistics they offer so readily as facts:

Surely, whether or not a disease or injury kills one, two or even three million people a year is not the issue. What matters is that the disease or injury is a major (or minor) cause of death and that, while much more reliable assessment is required, enough is already known about the magnitude of the hazard to take appropriate public health measures. That, after all, is the purpose of mortality statistics and, where these are not available, mortality estimates.


Bringing "purposes" into the calculation of statistics is a very troublesome practice. In truth, the real numbers are what they are, independent of any purposes or political agendas. When the commitment to accuracy is thrown out the window, or treated as optional, other purposes and agendas may dictate the numbers, not reality. "Research" and "reports" can become little more than exercises in manipulation.


The Impact of False Numbers

Compromising such data in the service of a political agenda not only serves to advance a heinous cause, i.e., the loss of legal protection for unborn children, but also leads to a severe misallocation of resources. Money, time, and governmental power is spent advancing the abortion and population control agenda of the Western elite instead of being devoted to the better medical care, sanitation, and infrastructure that would really improve living conditions in the developing world and reduce mortality rates across the board.

Furthermore, as we have learned in earlier parts of this series, despite attempts by WHO and AGI to define abortion safety in terms of legality (so that legal = safe, illegal = unsafe), there is little real evidence that legalizing abortion makes it safer. What legalization surely does is increase the number of abortions, and thus increase, particularly in the developing world, the risk of maternal complications, infections, and deaths, without addressing the underlying general medical deficiencies.

AGI concedes in its 1999 report that in countries legalizing abortion between 1975 and 1996, "there was probably also a real increase in abortion rates."

This only provides further evidence that what is at stake is more than just "honest mistakes" and statistical margins of error. There is legitimate reason to be concerned about maternal mortality in many of these developing nations. But if one cannot be candid about the numbers and the causes of maternal deaths, one can end up making things considerably worse for mothers and their unborn children.