Unnoticed tragedies: The problem of abortion underreporting in the U.S.

Estimations and guesses are all that is afforded to many thousands of deaths that go unreported, undercounted, unnoticed.

A recent study by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the education and policy research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, points to hard evidence that abortion statistics are strongly underreported in the United States. Accurate abortion reporting is needed, according to the study, because of the strong public interest in abortion-related statistics and because of the significant role that these stats play in public policy-making. Regardless of a policy-maker’s stance on abortion, the common goal of making abortion rare through state and federal legislation requires solid, unbiased data.

Unfortunately, as the Lozier study aptly summarizes, “solid and reliable” is not a phrase that applies well to this area of medical reporting, despite the fact that other fields are held to higher standards by government agencies. Furthermore, it is important that abortion data come from “unfiltered” sources, because information gathered by organizations with a strong interest in either side of the abortion debate is more likely to be biased and not taken seriously by elected officials and the public at large. According to the study, “[g]etting current and unfiltered information and having the advantage of multiple interpretations of its meaning should be a topic of the highest priority for state and federal attention.”

There are two main sources of abortion-reporting data in the United States: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Guttmacher Institute. Both entities face their own challenges to producing solid reports. The CDC can only underreport on abortion, because their data are collected solely from the states that voluntarily submit their annual reports (if they even have them) to the CDC for compilation. There is no obligation for states with annual reports to submit them to the CDC, and states with some of the highest abortion rates, including Maryland and California, are among those that usually do not produce an annual report at all. The combination of voluntary submission and lack of state reports means that the CDC’s numbers are weak and grossly incomplete.

The other source of data, the Guttmacher Institute, is a private research organization that has past affiliations with Planned Parenthood, and because of its close ties with abortion providers, it tends to produce accurate – though incomplete – data. Even in jurisdictions lacking mandatory reporting, Guttmacher is likely to have data because of its connections with the abortion business. Still, Guttmacher does rely on voluntarily submitted reports by the providers themselves, so there is no guarantee of uniformity and comprehensiveness in them.

Compared to Guttmacher, the CDC undercounts by almost half a million abortions in some cases because of its reliance on voluntary reporting and the fact that some states do not report at all. Furthermore, the spectrum of information collected by the CDC is at the mercy of what information each state chooses to include. For example, data on maternal mortality is required in only three states. This fact invalidates any statement on the supposed safety of induced abortion; there is simply no evidence on which to make such a claim.

Even with Guttmacher’s more comprehensive reporting, there are inhibitions to compiling a truly accurate and comprehensive report. One factor that affects both entities is the timeliness of reports; the CDC is on a three-year lag on average, and Guttmacher lags as well. This is not necessarily a handicap, however. For example, the annual report produced by Minnesota demonstrates that these projects need not be expensive or time-consuming; it releases its totals within six months of the previous calendar year and costs a total of only $4,000.

Another gap in abortion reporting is the underreporting of medicated abortions. As many as a quarter of U.S. jurisdictions do not have to report on medical (non-surgical, chemically-induced) abortions, leaving the deaths resulting from this growing phenomenon heavily underreported.  The method of reporting can also pose unnecessary roadblocks to the process; the Lozier Institute suggests that switching to electronic reporting in all states (a few already use it) will greatly help to streamline the reporting process and minimize the amount of time and money reporting and collection take.

For both Guttmacher and the CDC, long-term trends analysis cannot be accurately delineated due to the voluntary nature of abortion reporting and the lack of uniformity in what is reported across the board. When some of the facts are lacking, estimations and guesses are all that these organizations can provide. Estimations and guesses are all that is afforded to many thousands of deaths that go unreported, undercounted, unnoticed.

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