Monday, June 27, 2005

“Fake But Accurate” Christians

Journalists love to print stories laden with irony–at least when it comes to Republicans. Just weeks before the 2004 presidential election, George W. Bush was being blasted over his pro-life stance. Nothing new there, except this time the critic was a highly respected fellow evangelical.

In an article for the liberal-leaning Christian magazine Sojourners, Glen Harold Stassen, the Lewis B. Smedes professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, blamed the president’s social and economic policies for an increase of 52,000 abortions in 2002 than would otherwise have been expected nationwide.

“I am a Christian ethicist, and trained in statistical analysis,” Stassen wrote. “I am consistently pro-life. … I look at fruits of political policies more than words. I analyzed the data on abortion during the George W. Bush presidency. My findings are counterintuitive and disturbing.”

Stassen used data in 16 states to make his case that while abortion had decreased by 17.4 percent during the 1990s, abortions started increasing when Bush took office in 2001. Stassen said falling incomes, rising unemployment, and a lack of health insurance under Bush’s watch were factors.

While some pro-life groups, such as the National Right to Life Committee, quickly raised questions about the data and Stassen’s conclusions, the message had been delivered, predictably amplified by the mainstream media. Bush, seeking to solidify his standing with pro-life voters, had little opportunity to refute it but still won a high percentage of religious voters, carrying him to victory.

But in the wake of the November election, Democrats from Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton have used Stassen’s argument to tell values voters that they represent the real pro-life party. Dean, never prone to understatement, even told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that “abortions have gone up 25 percent since George Bush was president.”

There’s just one problem. Stassen’s conclusions are bunk.

That’s the assessment not of Karl Rove but of the abortion-rights-supporting Alan Guttmacher Institute. The institute, known as the authority in abortion statistics, looked at data not from 16 states, but from 43. It found that in those states the number of abortions had actually decreased by 0.8 percent in both 2001 and 2002, continuing a 20-year trend.

It’s also the conclusion of the Annenberg Center’s respected website. In a May 25 article entitled “The Biography of a Bad Statistic,” the center called Stassen’s sweeping claim “false,” “untrue,” and “[not] justified by the sketchy information he cited.”

And did this self-described “Christian ethicist … trained in statistical analysis” apologize for using incomplete and erroneous data right before the vote? Sadly, no. The most Stassen, son of the late nine-time losing presidential candidate, Harold Stassen, would concede is that the new Guttmacher statistics are “significantly better” than those he used.

Far from being chastened, Stassen called the decreases in abortion under Bush–which after all occurred during a recession inherited from the Clinton administration, worsened by 9/11–a “stall” in the progress made during the 1990s. Even Sojourners declined to apologize to a fellow Christian, saying, “[F]or those pursuing a consistent pro-life ethic, these updated statististics still paint a troubling picture.”

In other words, much like the ludicrous CBS News defense of its forged-documents story, the charge by these “consistently pro-life” Christians is “fake but accurate.”

How ironic.


Blogger kaligula said... is pretty good at debunking claims made by both the right and left.

It's interesting on the current home page of, along with the article "The Biography of a Bad Statistic," is the article "A Premature Attack," which largely debunks the ad running by concerning senate democrats intent to smear a possible Bush appointment to the Supreme Court.

Although claims to be a nonpartisan organization (which is laughable), I wonder how they feel about an up or down vote if we had a Democratic President and a Democratic majority in the senate?

With respect to Pro-life? Look at the fruits
by Dr. Glen Harold Stassen
, I went over to and read the original article but was there was no explanation of the methods he used to arrive at that conclusion.

However, at, I found a support article which went into more detail how he arrived at his conclusion. Since, I do have a BS in Mathematics, I can follow technical statitical analysis.

Unfortunately, his z test of significance at the 99.9999% confidence level, which he claimed (since he using reported raw data) was infinitely better than the usual political polling methods, turned out to be as accurate as those exit polls used on election day.

When you look at his other articles and books on his web site, it is clear Dr. Stassen has a very liberal political perspective on economics and war, and thus would have political motivation to criticize the Bush Administration.

3:03 AM  
Blogger Stan Guthrie said...

When I notified Dr. Stassen about my critique yesterday, I received the following mass e-mail response. To be fair to him, I'm reproducing it here in its entirety. (FYI, I don't find his long-winded defense convincing.)


Thank you very much for your message about abortion trends. Because the interest has been so high, I have written a response to the queries. I hope you find it helpful, and hope it causes some further thinking about what is really at stake in these discussions and policies.


Reaffirming My Op Ed Article that Prolife Needs to Pay Attention to Economic Justice

Glen Stassen. June 15, 2005

When I wrote an opinion editorial last October (2004) on abortion numbers for 2002, it was widely reprinted. I stated clearly that “federal reports go only to 2000, and many states do not report.” So, I explained, I had to search for state departments of health that had reported their results for 2002. I found the data for sixteen states: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Washington state, and Wisconsin. The total number of abortions in those states increased by a little over 6,000 in 2002, by comparison with the previous year.

Seven months later, with more data now in, and with their extensive research staff, the Alan Guttmacher Institute has estimated—and they are clear it is an estimate—the number of abortions in the forty-three states for which they have data. Nothing in their report contradicts the data I reported for the sixteen states whose data I had seven months ago. I have just gone to Robert Johnston’s website where he reports the state-by-state data that he collects (, and, where he lacks data, to state health department reports. Anyone can do the same by going to, and then choosing each of the states and searching for their data. Some updating has occurred since seven months ago, slightly altering the numbers in a couple of states. but my numbers hold up. The number of abortions reported by the health departments in those sixteen states increased by about 6,000 in 2002 by comparison with 2001.

I made clear that neither I nor anyone had the results for all fifty states, so I had to extrapolate from the sixteen states whose data I had. This is what you do in scientific research: you get the best data you can find, you use a consistent method in reporting it, and you state the limits of your method. Then you wait to see whether others confirm it. Guttmacher is now able to estimate the results for forty-three states. They estimate that abortions in those forty-three states probably declined slightly, but at a slower rate than previously—what I call a stall.

I gave several pieces of evidence that one very important factor in women’s decisions to have an abortion was their belief that they could not afford to raise the baby. And another major factor was whether or not they had a reliable husband or mate. And when the unemployment rate is high, men tend not to marry. Countries like Belgium and Holland whose abortion ratio is only one-fourth as big as the United States give mothers and babies strong economic support as well as health insurance. Other important factors include the mothers’ own ethics, and support or lack of it from churches, schools, friends and family.

Had my estimate that abortions in the fifty states probably increased as they did in the sixteen states turned out to be right, it would have put significant pressure on the Bush administration to give more support to mothers and babies, and thus do much better in decreasing the abortion ratio. And it would urge Democratic politicians to shift toward advocating policies that would decrease abortions. You would expect consistently pro-life advocates like me to hope I was right, and thus increase the incentive and the pressure to reduce abortions.

Indeed, I received a lot of email, and it was mostly supportive. But the irony is that some who are officially pro-life worked hard to undermine my results. That has the effect of removing pressure on the administration to adopt policies that decrease abortions.

They happily used the Alan Guttmacher report to claim I had erred, while pointing out that Guttmacher is connected with Planned Parenthood. So here is the irony of advocates who claim to be pro-life cheering data from a pro-choice source to say things are not as bad as I thought. They attack my pro-life effort to push the Bush administration to adopt policies that decrease abortions. It raises the question whether their real loyalty is pro-life, or whether their priority is partisan politics. I continue to seek to persuade Republicans and Democrats to adopt policies that support mothers and children, which has proven to be the effective way in other countries to reduce abortions dramatically. Pro-life would mean you would support pressure to adopt policies that make a real difference for reducing abortions.

Steven Ertelt of Life News even claimed that I “sometimes used old figures and even used the birth rate instead of the abortion rate in one state to reach his conclusions.” I believe this to be an irresponsible charge without basis; I wonder where he got his claim. I just checked the data again, and I certainly did not do that. I have written him asking him what state he is referring to, and he has not responded. Had I used the birth rate it would have put my number four times as high as reality. I did use figures from the last thirty years to point out that the abortion rate roughly correlated with the unemployment rate during that long period. And I did point out that abortions decreased dramatically in the 1990s. But the data for the sixteen states come from 2002 compared with 2001.

In order to be as objective as possible, I set the criterion in advance that I would include the data from every state where I could find the state health department data on numbers of abortions. I would not reject any states whose reports I found because that could introduce a subjective bias. I did not “pick states”; I reported every state whose health department data I could find. Guttmacher decided not to include two states with large increases in the number of abortions—Arizona and Colorado—because their reporting is inconsistent. That explains most of the difference in our totals. They also omitted a few other states for which I also did not have data. This decreased the total number of abortions that they reported. I am not criticizing Guttmacher’s method; each of us made our method clear, and we stayed with our methods.

Here is what is widely agreed about abortion numbers:

1. The number of U.S. abortions dropped dramatically in the 1990s from 1.6 million abortions per year to about 1.3 million per year—a drop of 300,000 abortions per year.

2. Experts like to focus on the ratio of abortions per 100 pregnancies that end either in live births or abortions. This makes sense because it is not affected by how many women get pregnant; it focuses on how many pregnant women have abortions. (Miscarriages of course are not counted.)

3. The dramatic drop of about 300,000 in abortions per year during the 1990s represents a drop in the ratio of abortions during the 1990s from 28.0 to 24.5.

4. From 1990 to 1995, the ratio dropped at the rate of .35 per year, with the most dramatic drop coming in 1994 and 1995.

5. The U.S. Catholic bishops warned that if welfare was phased out, the support for poor mothers contemplating whether they could afford to raise their babies would erode, and the reduction in abortions would likely stall or even increase. The bishops were right: Welfare was being phased out in the late 1990s, and the drop in ratios slowed from .35 per year in the first half of the decade (with the big drop coming in 1994 and 1995) to a drop of only 0.15 per year from 1996-2000.

6. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that the ratio continued to drop during the first two years of the Bush administration, but by a still slower slow rate: “Between 1992 and 1996, the annualized decline was 3.4 per year, while between 1996 and 2000, it was 1.2% per year. The annualized decline between 2000 and 2002 was 0.9% per year, suggesting that the last two years reflect a continuation of the trend of the late 1990s, albeit at a slightly slower rate of decline.”

7. The Guttmacher report wisely warns that their results are estimates, not the final number. They extrapolated from the 2000 data by using percentages reported by state health departments. They then tested the accuracy of this method by applying it to 1996 and 1997, years for which they do have the actual numbers. Their method was off by 1% for 1997. So the decline of 0.9% is within the margin of error. They also warn that it takes several years to discern the effects of Bush policies. I am very pleased that the interest my op ed caused means Guttmacher and many others will be watching to see what the effects of those policies will be.

8. The Guttmacher report also confirms the thesis of the op ed that I published (and that the Catholic Bishops warned about)—that removing economic supports from women would be one factor causing more abortions. They report: “While the abortion rate declined among most groups between 1994 and 2000, it increased among poor women and women on Medicaid.”

9. The official report from the Center for Disease Control indicates the infant mortality rate increased in the year I focused on—2002—for the first time since their report begins—1940. This supports my contention that mothers and babies have been undermined economically.

10. The official crime report indicates the homicide rate also increased in 2002. It had been going down steadily in the 1990s, but has now also reversed the trend. In Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (InterVarsity Press), chapter 8, I showed that unemployment is one major factor influencing the homicide rate.

Two thirds of women who abort say they cannot afford a child (Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life website); in the past four years, unemployment rates increased half again and average real incomes decreased, and for eight years the minimum wage has not been raised to match inflation. Half of all women who abort say they do not have a reliable mate (Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life); men who are jobless usually do not marry. Women worry about health care for themselves and their children; 5.2 million more people have no health insurance now than four years ago.

I reaffirm the conclusion that I stated in my article in the February 22nd Christian Century: Taking $200 billion per year out of tax income for the wealthy and therefore squeezing down justice programs for the children, the schools, the CHIP health insurance program that should support children, and jobs programs, and shifting income from the broad consumer base to the wealthy, has been bad for mothers and children. We need a motherhood mandate—health insurance, accessible clinics, economic support, parental leave with pay for a child’s first year (as most every other democracy except the US has), jobs programs, and support for schools like my wife’s where teenagers can bring their babies and get their clinic visits without either quitting school or having an abortion—or getting someone else to parent their baby.

9:13 AM  
Blogger kaligula said...

Dr. Stassen's reply won't cut it.

His email reply to you:

I made clear that neither I nor anyone had the results for all fifty states, so I had to extrapolate from the sixteen states whose data I had. This is what you do in scientific research: you get the best data you can find, you use a consistent method in reporting it, and you state the limits of your method. Then you wait to see whether others confirm it.

Well, here's his direct quotes from his support paper on this article located on the Fullerton Website. Perhaps the good Doctor didn't count on someone actually looking it up.

The Midwest being over-represented also over-represents states whose number of abortions decreased: Minnesota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Thus if anything the national increases are likely to be greater than I extrapolated.

A Z-test of statistical significance of the sixteen states for the one year that I reported, representing about thirty million women of child-bearing age, suggests greater than 99.9999% confidence that they represent the fifty states. In nontechnical language, the polls in the presidential race sample 500 or 1,000 prospective voters and extrapolate to fifty million voters; I have the actual reported results—not an opinion poll—for states with 30 million prospective mothers in them, and am extrapolating to about 100 million prospective mothers in all the states. This is almost infinitely better than the usual polling methods. The total number of abortions nationally was 3.265 times as many as in the sixteen states. This suggests that the national increase in abortions in 2001 was 3.625 times 6,207, or over 20,000 instead of the 28,000 decrease that had been the trend in the 1990s.

The ten states for which I have the data in 2000 handy had their abortions increase by 4,067 in 2001, just about exactly the same proportion as the increase for sixteen states in 2002. And in 2003, I have data for five states. Compared with 2000, their number of abortions increased by 5,651. The Z-test of statistical significance for the increase from 2000 to 2003 is greater than 99.999999%. In my original article, I focused only on the one year for which I had most data and which was completely in the Bush presidency, but the data indicate a consistent increase during all three years of his presidency.

If the number of abortions also increased by approximately 48,000 above what would have been expected if the decline in the previous decade had continued, and they increased in 2002 by approximately another 48,000, then the total number of abortions in 2002 was about 96,000 more than expected. If that trend continued again in 2003, then almost half of the decrease during the decade of the 1990s has now been reversed. We will not know that until more of the 2003 data are in, but the same causal factors that I named have continued throughout the Bush presidency, and the five states whose 2003 data I do have confirm it decisively.

Yes, the good Doctor is busted. His original statements hardly read like the words of the humble practioner of the scientific method, tentativley proposing a statistical hypothesis on limited data, and seeking further scientific confirmation before blasting off to the MSM about George Bush's tax cuts causing an uptick in abortions nationwide.

To make clear. I am pro-choice, but I am not buying that tax cuts result in more abortions.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Stan Guthrie said...

From my e-mail bag:

Mr. Guthrie,

I came across your blog posting "Fake But Accurate" Christians, and saw for
the first time that Stassen was citing my web site in regard to his bogus
claims on U.S. abortion incidence. I had previously had inquires related to
Stassen's op-ed and am working on a review that I will post soon. I though
you might be interested in an advance copy, so here it is below. Thanks for
bringing this issue up on your blog.

Wm. Robert Johnston


Since Dr. Stassen cites my site in his defense of his claimed abortion
increase, I thought I'd weigh in. My training includes not just statistical
analysis but also understanding the potential limits of such analysis.
Stassen's analysis fails for two main reasons:

1. His data is limited, and he fails to recognize how the limitations of
the data result in limited validity of his quantitative conclusions.

2. He focuses on a handful of influences on abortion rates to the exclusion
of others. He then erroneously claims a casual relation based on a
correlation between his chosen influences and his fictitious abortion

I have received inquiries relating to Stassen's articles and hope to soon
complete an extended analysis. For now, I would point out the following:

* Stassen's original claim is based on 16 states and for these is a supposed
net increase of 6,007 abortions from 2001 to 2002. (He gives an incorrect
total of 6,207 in more than one place.) Most of Stassen's increase is due
to Arizona and Colorado (5,465 net increase). For these two states, the
2001 total is 30% lower than 2002--and also 42% lower than 1998. An
attentive user of this data should question this profound and temporary
decrease, since it implies a problem with data collection. This problem is
reportedly confirmed by both AGI and the respective state agencies. Thus,
the data for Arizona and Colorado should have been rejected. This would
change his total to an increase of 542. (Stassen in his response justifies
including these states so as not to introduce a "subjective bias"; by
blindly including these states, he actually introduces a systematic bias in
favor of an increase.)

* Stassen does not use consistent data. Some states report all in-state
abortions, some report only abortions by residents. For states where both
types of data are reported, he is inconsistent in which set he picks. The
result is to inflate his total. For the 16 states, the actual reported net
change from 2001 to 2002 is anywhere from a decrease of 1,970 to an increase
of 5,782, depending on which data is used. (Again, the result of his
selective data use here is to introduce a bias towards increasing

* At the time of Stassen's original research (mid 2004), my web site
included 2001 and 2002 data for ten additional states: Arkansas, Georgia,
Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Virginia.
Of these states, 6 posted decreases and 4 posted increases from 2001 to
2002. For all 24 states (these 10 and Stassen's 16 less Arizona and
Colorado), we get a net decrease of at least 2,845 from 2001 to 2002. This
projects to a nationwide decrease of 8,000, comparing well to the AGI
estimated decrease of 10,000 from 2001 to 2002. (Regardless of why Stassen
did not include these 10 states, the result was to introduce a systematic
bias towards increasing abortions.)

* Stassen cites a 1% margin of error in their recent estimates for 2001 and
2002 and says "So the decline of 0.9% [from 2001 to 2002] is within the
margin of error." He does not acknowledge that his claimed 1.5% increase is
well outside this margin of error.

* Stassen claims that of women obtaining abortions, " not see
how they could afford to raise the child" and "half..say they do not have a
reliable mate", citing Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. This same
site, citing AGI, says that 75% of women "say having a baby would interfere
with work, school, or other responsibilities." Because these reported
reasons overlap, it would be erroneous to select a single reason as decisive
in decisions to obtain abortions. In a 1988 AGI survey, only 21% cited
economics as the most important reason, and only 13% cited issues with the
mate as the most important reason. In data reported by the states of
Minnesota, from 1998 to 2003 only 25.8% of women reported economic reasons
and only 18.9% reported relationship issues or single status as a reason.

* Stassen's claims regarding economics are not accurate; they repeatedly
correspond more to false claims by the Democratic party than to actual data.
For example, real income for the lowest quintile of U.S. households has been
declining from a peak in 1999, before Bush came into office. Also, from
2001 to 2003 the decline in real household income has been higher for the
wealthiest quintile than for the other four quintiles, contradicting his
farfetched linkage between CHIP budgets and tax policies.

* Stassen claims more abortions result from lack of a "reliable husband or
mate", which in turn he claims results from high unemployment. He
specifically cites reduced marriages in his 16 chosen states. However, the
decline in marriages and marriage rates has been mostly ongoing since the
early 1980s. Marriage indicators do not correlate with either abortion
numbers, abortion ratios, or economic conditions. There are other social
factors at work here, which Stassen ignores.

* Stassen errs in citing abortion rates and social policies in other
countries in support of his thesis. He cites Belgium and the Netherlands,
claiming their abortion ratios are lower because of "strong economic support
as well as health insurance" for mothers. However, many other countries
have similar social policies and nonetheless have abortion ratios comparable
to the U.S. Belgium and the Netherlands are distinguished by having a
mandatory waiting period for abortions. In other words, legislative
restrictions on abortion rather than socialist economic practices are best
correlated with lower abortion rates.

* Stassen repeatedly ignores an important dictum in science: correlation
does not prove casuality. For example, he claims an infant mortality
increase in 2002 "supports [his] contention that mothers and babies have
been undermined economically." He has offered no evidence for a casual
connection here.

Stassen accuses his critics of placing partisan politics before pro-life
policies. The data suggests that this criticism would better fit Stassen
himself. His data analysis was poorly carried out, and even worse he
ignored the deficiencies in his approach in his zeal to support his thesis
of federal social policy being the greatest factor in abortion rates. His
selective evidence indicates no acknowledgement of factors which are better
correlated with lower abortion rates--mandatory waiting periods, for one.
He offers no support to such policies that offer greater promise for
reducing abortions.

In fact, it seems clear that Stassen's analysis was colored by his desire to
influence policy: "Had my esimate that abortions...probably
increased...turned out to be right, it would have put significant pressure
on the Bush administration to give more support to mothers and babies... You
would expect consistently pro-life advocates like me to hope I was right."
Unfortunately, the facts got in the way, it seems.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Sandy said...

Stassen is right at least to express his concern over the strange bedfellows created by those who want to discredit his numbers. And maybe his numbers deserve to be discredited. I don't know. But does anyone mind if I say that I don't care? In the larger scheme of things, we should be having a different conversation.

I understand that the numbers, the policies, and the politics are all controversial. But it would be lovely if we could get past the mudslinging and realize that abortion should not be treated like a partisan football. It is something real and rightly troubling. Anything from the Left or Right that we can do to protect and nurture innocent life should be our concern.

The Democrats need to acknowledge that there are strong pro-life voices in the "liberal" party. The Republicans need to acknowledge that they are more pro-birth than pro-children in their policies. Just as liberals need to acknowledge that abortion is easily characterized as a form of infanticide, so conservatives need to acknowledge that their economic agenda absolutely does make it harder for families to support and nurture their children.

As for George W. Bush - he doesn't cut it for me on this issue. This is a guy who is touted for having the courage of his convictions, but he would not even appear in person at the last pro-life rally in Washington.

If Bush means what he says, he would call loud and clear for the reversal of Roe, then address the aftermath in terms of state laws. He would not back off in cases of rape and incest. And furthermore, he (and Frist) would propose legislation banning IVF procedures because whether you freeze these embryos or kill them outright, it's horrific from a pro-life ethic.

But let me hazard a guess that good Republican, Chrisitan families find a way to justify IVF when they need it, just as women I have known have found a way to justify an abortion when a pregnancy was problematic.

I don't think Bush has shown any leadership on this issue at all. The late Bob Casey had backbone at least.

I don't mean to sound strident on any of these issues. I arrive at these thoughts by applying consistently my belief that human life begins at conception. These are the difficult conversations we should be having, and I feel between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Democrats and Republicans alike.

Finally, one absolutely can (like Stassen) be staunchly pro-life and reserve the right to criticize Bush's economic and foreign policies.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Stan Guthrie said...

Bush has indeed shown less leadership than I would like on life issues--but consider the alternative. Also, no one is questioning Dr. Stassen's right to criticize the administration. But I find it highly disturbibg for a professor of ethics to blatantly misuse statististics right before an election--then refuse to apologize. Criticize all you want--but base your criticism on facts, not ideology.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Sandy said...

Mr. Guthrie -

Thanks for the reply. Yes, ethics professors should not mislead with statistics, and you're right too that people should argue from facts, though we are bound to be influenced by our beliefs. In the build-up to the Iraq war, for example, the facts seem to have taken a back seat to making a case for the invasion. This is yet another reaosn that Bush doesn't thrill me.

I understand when you say "consider the alternative," but I still feel between a rock and a hard place. That's why I liked Bob Casey.

I continue to think that strident rhetoric on both sides obscures the reality of abortion. In my church (Catholic), people compare it to the Holocaust, which I think is a false analogy. On the other side, people act (a little too defiantly I think) as if they're having an appendix removed. If we could speak calmly and from the heart about ending a life in the womb, or creating a potential life and discarding it--and why women do it--we would have a very different conversation.

Anyway, thanks again for the response. Even within the realm of facts, people will disagree - but your point about Stassen is well taken. This behavior is as bad as the new NARAL ad about John Roberts, another winner in the war against fact.

10:42 AM  

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