God forbid, an 8 percent increase in dubious claims

During the political conventions a few weeks ago, we commented on some disparate coverage of pro-life Democrats and pro-life Republicans. Let’s revisit one aspect of that.

Here, for instance, is a Los Angeles Times piece dramatically headlined:

Democratic ‘pro-life’ group: It is GOP that threatens the unborn

Given the Democratic Party’s official position on no abortion limits and the Republican Party’s official position against abortion, this is saying something. The article explains:

[O]thers addressing delegates and the media here said the much bigger threat to push up the rate of abortion would be posed by Republican attempts to rescind Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Without the health reform, many more women would lose the pre-natal and post-natal care they count on and would feel unable to sustain a pregnancy — causing many to turn to abortion, Schneck said.

He said that a test case of this belief had already occurred in Massachusetts. Because of a healthcare reform pushed, ironically, by former governor Romney, women now get comprehensive health treatment in that state. The result, Schneck said, has been a 20% drop in the abortion rate for teenagers.

Something similar, he argued, can be expected once Obama’s national healthcare reform takes effect.

Oh is that what Stephen Schneck said? The article doesn’t tell us where Schneck gets his data or how reliable it is. From NBC we learn:

Stephen Schneck of Catholic University in Washington told the gathering that “the number of abortions will skyrocket” if Medicaid spending is cut, which would be one likely outcome of adopting the budget plan of the GOP vice presidential candidate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.

“Can a pro-life voter vote for Romney if it means a 6 or 7 or, God forbid, an 8 percent increase in the number of abortions in America?” Schneck asked.

That all sounds very scientific, particularly if you know that Stephen Schneck isn’t just any professor at Catholic University. Or, as Jonathan Last of the conservative The Weekly Standard explains in his rather brutal takedown of Schneck’s use of these figures, “What the Schneck? A Catholic University scholar’s data-free theory on Romney and abortion“:

Professor Stephen Schneck is a conundrum. He’s a Catholic who works for the Catholic University of America (CUA). But he’s involved with the group Catholics for Obama—despite the church hierarchy’s view that the president is attacking the religious freedom of Catholics. He’s pro-life. But he supports Democratic politicians universally—even though the party has become manifestly hostile to pro-lifers. Schneck’s most puzzling contradiction is this: He claims that while Democrats support abortion rights, it’s really Republicans who cause abortions.

Schneck is very specific about it. He has numbers. At an event in Charlotte earlier this month during the Democratic convention, Schneck spoke on a panel hosted by Democrats for Life. He asked the audience, “Can one vote for Romney if it means a 6, or 7, or, God forbid, 8 percent increase in the number of abortions in America?”

That’s an interesting question. Interesting because (1) it contradicts the received wisdom about abortion and (2) it does so with seeming mathematical precision. Schneck doesn’t foresee a 4 percent jump. Or a 12 percent jump. He locates the projected rise in a narrow band. It’s the kind of figure that brings you up short. Because Stephen Schneck isn’t just some crank professor trying to rile up his undergraduates. He’s the director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies—CUA’s in-house think tank. As IPR says on its website, the “institute continues to bring rigorous academic research to bear on contemporary questions of public policy and religion.”

So when Schneck says that the number of abortions will increase under Mitt Romney, by 6 or 7 or 8 percent, he isn’t just popping off. He’s a serious academic, wearing Catholic University’s pointiest, most rigorous, social science hat.

Last was one of the reporters covering that panel discussion. But, apparently, he was the only one with enough knowledge about abortion rates to question Schneck’s data claims. He assumed, given Schneck’s position and confidence and precision, that he had published research on the topic. Schneck hadn’t. Schneck explained where his theory came from, but Last pushed him for the specific data. He didn’t get it.

Last wasn’t satisfied. Or as he put it, surely Schneck “wouldn’t claim that abortions will increase under a Romney administration by a given percentage and then say that there isn’t any research on the subject.” After Last’s third attempt to get him to explain how he arrived at his “6 percent to 8 percent” figure, Schneck stopped answering, according to Last.

So Last goes and digs through research on his own. He analyzes the research and its limitations. It turns out that “very little research turns on the exact question of what happens to abortion when public assistance for births is cut.” There’s not a single peer-reviewed study that deals precisely with that point, according to one professor who specializes in economics and the law of abortion. However, there are other studies hitting the question from another angle, Last says, showing that the Guttmacher Institute concluded in 2009 the precise opposite of what Schneck suggested.

There’s much more, including a particularly noteworthy ending.

But I bring all this up to highlight the problems with just going with a source’s word as the basis for a story. It’s not that any technical journalism sin has been committed. I mean, all those stories about the “Innocence of Muslims” film being bankrolled by a particular number of Jews for a particular number of dollars explained that the claim was made by their source. And these reports about abortion rates going up 6-8 percent are just passing along the claims of another individual. That neither figure is backed up in the real world isn’t the journalists’ fault, technically. But should they be passing along this info with the headlines only making brief mention of the source? I don’t know the right answer, actually. But it’s not journalism’s finest hour, obviously.

How to combat this?Is the best thing is to have reporters on the beat who are either much more skeptical of claims in general or just much more knowledgeable?

I know everyone’s first editor says to “fact check it” when your mother says she loves you, but it’s great advice.

This is an important topic, not just for those who favor or oppose unlimited rights to abortion, but for voters in general. It’s important enough to get the facts right and to push sources to get facts right. There will always be different analysis of numbers, and that’s understandable, but passing along such a specific claim without any analysis of the research (or lack thereof) that is being used to support the claim is probably not appropriate.

Number image via Shutterstock.

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  • Jerry

    There’s lies, damn lies and what people claim to make a political point. As far as I can see from perusing the various fact checkers, the only question that’s open is which side is a bigger liar on average. And of course, both sides ignore their own lies while pointing the finger at the other side’s lies. In this case, I could find no evidence that this particular claim has been fact checked by any group.

    So the claim rests on the idea of demand reduction rather than supply reduction. That is or should be a statistically testable claim.

    But I’m not disagreeing with your point – I agree with your point. Important claims should be fact checked. But as we’ve seen, fact checking can be a tricky business because there are those who will attack the results.

    For the sake of argument, if we assume he did not make up the number, then there’s a question about how reliable is the research that resulted in that number. I’d bet the farm that anyone who wanted to could find someone to speak in favor of the statistics and someone to say that the statistical analysis was flawed. Was the sample size large enough, were the questions neutral or biased and is the confidence interval for the result correctly calculated are three obvious questions.

    Here I’m not arguing that we ignore the problem but that we need to take any fact checking result with a grain of salt. Along with that, we should all pray that Christians at least start following what the Bible teaches about honesty http://www.openbible.info/topics/honesty

  • Darrell Turner

    Mollie, you make some good points as a follow-up to the discussion that George started with his posting below.
    You may be right that the reporter can and should ask the interviewee for the source of the facts. That would certainly press the interviewee to demonstrate that he or she wasn’t simply guesstimating or making up a statistic.
    Having said that, would it be the reporter’s responsibility to then check the source to determine how reliable it is? Your postings show that you are a rare mathematical maven who is capable of analyzing such things as the reliability of the sample population and other such factors. This would be especially difficult for most reporters to do on a tight deadline.
    So, let’s grant that a good reporter should ask the interviewee the source of his or her statistic. Do you think the reporter has any further responsibility?

  • Mike

    The Weekly Standard writer was also not writing on deadline, but instead writing a piece to challenge the professor. Is there a different standard for deadline writing and long- form writing or writing for the ideological press?

  • Spencerian

    Quoted: “Because of a healthcare reform pushed, ironically, by former governor Romney, women now get comprehensive health treatment in that state.”

    Apparently the LA Times reporter went to Alanis Morrisette Grammar School. There is something coincidental about Romney’s past health care programs. But there’s nothing “ironic” about it.

    • mollie

      “Apparently the LA Times reporter went to Alanis Morrisette Grammar School.”
      Comment of the week!

    • The idea of ‘irony’ is ‘Happening in the opposite way to what is expected’. Romney didn’t push health care in Massachusetts ironically… but it’s ironic that he’s now campaigning *against* a strikingly similar system.

      I like a dig at Ms. Morrisette as much as anyone else, but I think the reporter used the term correctly in this case.

  • I’ve been out of practice a couple of years, but when I worked, any pregnant woman without insurance would be eligible for Medicaid to pay her bills. She could apply after she was far enough into pregnancy to be “unemployed” and voila, bills are covered.

    Come to think of it, a lot of young folks who have major emergencies and are touted in the press for “owing” huge medical bills similarly are covered: The hospital social worker will apply for Medicaid, and Medicaid will cover the bill retroactively. True, if it was a car wreck, Medicaid won’t pay until they are sure the car insurance won’t cover the bill, but usually these things got paid for, or else we would write off the bill as a “bad debt”.

    Some folks merely “went bankrupt”, meaning they kept their houses and cars but could ignore our bills.

    And, of course, anyone who goes into an Emergency room will be seen, no matter what.

    Being a doc, I don’t know the rules, but only how my patients got their bills paid for.

  • The Old Bill

    87.4% of statistics are made up on the spot.

  • dalea

    This is an interesting intersection of statistics and microeconomics. What seems to have happened here is that the economic truism that as things become less expensive, people will use more of them. So, the resoning runs, since Obamacare makes pregnancy more affordable, women will be more likely to choose to continue with one rather than terminate. This sounds plausible to me. But what we need to know is what percentage of pregnant women terminate based primarily on economic factors, which should be knowable. If it is a large number, than Obamacare will prevent a large number of abortions.

    However, if the number is small, or if this is only one factor among many, then the effect is reduced. Professor Schneck speaks as if he has worked out an equation for examining the subject. Which leads us into econometrics. Given how poorly reporters do with statistics let alone microeconmics, I do not have great hope they will be able to handle econometrics. Years ago, I studied the subject. But never used it all that much so am very rusty. However, let me make a guess. He is either using figures from a substituion effect or from cross elasticity of demand.

    If it is a substitution case, then availablility of care is a determinate of choice. And the more assured care is, the less abortion is a viable option. Pretty much the same holds for cross elasticity. Note that the hidden assumption here is that abortion is always low in the hierarchy of choices, that it is a sign of desperation. Not sure that is uniformly the case.

    Anyway, arguments of this type are enormously tricky, difficult to explain and prone to exaggeration. Which ordinary reporters should not go after.

  • dalea

    People do not ‘merely’ go bankrupt. This is an action that haunts their lives for decades. In many states, a lawyer who ‘merely’ goes bankrupt is disbarred for life. Many employers will not hire bankrupts. Credit ratings can be destroyed for decades. And, in many states people loose their houses and cars. Bankruptcy is not some sort of trivial thing.

    Having done patient advocacy in several states, I find the statements here about Medicaid to be simply false. It is very difficult to get Medicaid if you have any assets or viable career. I have known a number of people who had to sell their homes and vehicles and investments, spend all the proceeds on medical care and then when destitute apply for Medicaid. Several people were eventually cured, but having exhausted all their lifetime goods simply could not start over again. Medicare is only viable for those with no assets; for everyone else it is a path to destitution. People emerge from these situations with destroyed credit ratings, the prospect of lawsuits and garnished wages for decades, decreased employment prostpects and decades of harrassment from creditors. Not a good prospect compared to Obamacare.

  • dalea

    I checked the IRS guidelines for writing off ‘bad debt’. It is not an easy option to use. You must age the receivable, put it through your normal collection process, and after six months you must use all means short of actually going to court to collect the money. And all of this requires due diligence with extensive record keeping, which can not be charged to the particular debt but must become part of general accounting overhead. Medicaid can not pay anything ‘retroactively’ ; that would be illegal. Medicaid can pay accumulated bills which I suspect what is being talked about here. Usually this is something like Medicare spend down which happens at the end of the fiscal year.

    Should you take a partial payment on a bill, you must document why you will not accept this as payment in full. And be ready to do so in court. Then you can write it off as uncollectible.

    But you also can sell the bills to a collector for a small sum: like 00.10% of face. Then the collector can hound the people for seven years with threats of garnishment and court.

    To say write off is simply hand waving.