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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 05, 2008

I spent a very long time today working up a blog entry which purported to prove from government statistics that one adult woman out of every three has not had an abortion. I still have a deep suspicion of that figure, which has been used repeatedly by both pro-abortion and pro-life organizations. The pro-life groups use it to show how widespread the problem is; the pro-aborts just want us to accept abortion as normal.

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So I took a few hours to work up the total number of women who had passed through one or more of their child-bearing years since Roe v. Wade in 1973, and I checked the numbers of abortions during the same years as reported both by the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the Centers for Disease Control. I also tried to find out how many women have had more than one abortion, a question which, based on my examination of the data, seems often to be ignored. One study reported that 47% of all women seeking abortions had had at least one abortion previously, and obviously some women have many abortions, but it is hard to find sound, extensive data on that question.

My labors led me to conclude that an accurate assessment would place the number of women who have had abortions at between 1 in 3.5 (worst case) and 1 in 10 (best case). It would be too much to say that I was elated, but I found my conclusions heartening.

But then I noticed a funny thing. If I construed the fertile years to be between 15 and 50, my methodology returned far better numbers (from the pro-life viewpoint) than if I took a more conservative span of years from 15 to 44. Thinking about this problem, I soon realized that no ultimate conclusion can be reached without something more than the number of abortions (which must be under-reported anyway) and the number of women in a generalized fertility range. The actual fertility window is critical in every respect, as one can recognize immediately if one were to assume that all women are fertile for exactly one year, and so the number of abortions each year would have to be measured against the number of women who were exactly that age—which would prove (wrongly, because of the assumption) that a significant majority of women had abortions. In short, to nail this down, a better methodology is needed.

Some researchers have tried to achieve this by either studying far more data or by extrapolating from small amounts of data drawn from better-known specific populations. The going is very difficult, and I suspect most people have adopted rules of thumb that are more or less dubious.

I may be thought a fool, but I do not wish to remove all doubt. Therefore, instead of heartening statistical news, I can offer only a larger and perennially valid Christian point: People are not statistics, and should never be treated—or even suspected—as if they were.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Dec. 29, 2018 4:24 PM ET USA

    Aside from the murder risks still present among murderers behind bars in "civilized" societies, little mention is noted of the unique corruptions in poorly adjudicated third world societies where controlling prison populations effectively is even more farcical. A just use of course, depends on getting the limited judicial process right.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Dec. 19, 2018 10:18 PM ET USA

    Paul8329: There must be some confusion. I agree that it is possible to maintain the position you outline; I have never written anything to the contrary. But this is not the position Pope Francis has taken publicly. He has not only stated that capital punishment is ALWAYS inadmissible, and so is life imprisonment.

  • Posted by: begnoche7263 - Dec. 19, 2018 1:22 PM ET USA

    The Pope's stance on the death penalty is clear rupture with Catholic Teaching/Tradition. Does anyone really believe that this day and age there should be less capital punishment? Look at all the heinous crime in the US alone, all the repeat offenders. Tell the families of those who had members murdered by convicted felons that we live in a world that no longer needs capital punishment. Gangs running in prisons and still controlling what happens on the outside, insanity!

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Dec. 19, 2018 7:37 AM ET USA

    Good piece, Jeff. PF is placing himself outside the deposit of faith and tradition on many points. He is not going to get any better, so my conclusion is that faithful Catholics will just have to wait him out, and perhaps wait out his successor, who will be elected by a stacked college of cardinals. But eventually, his invalid teachings will be recognized as such, though perhaps not in my lifetime. I am frankly sick of reading one of his intemperate and vain utterances after another.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Dec. 18, 2018 11:35 PM ET USA

    AL n. 297: "No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!" John 2:15: "And when he had made, as it were, a scourge of little cords, he drove them all out of the temple, the sheep also and the oxen, and the money of the changers he poured out, and the tables he overthrew." Which of these two excerpts represents justice? How many of Jesus' teachings point to a hell that is real? Does justice demand? Matthew 25:46: "And these shall go into everlasting punishment."

  • Posted by: mm7073 - Dec. 18, 2018 6:27 PM ET USA

    I have yet to find one person who has commented on the Pope's current capital punishment reversal, either pro or con, who has addressed the issue of whether or not it is actually possible to protect the citizenry from murderers without resorting to capital punishment when Hispanic gang leaders and mafiosi continue to run crime syndicates from behind bars, ordering the murder by their associates of witnesses and competitors. Time and again we've seen the corruption of the people running the prisons playing a role in this (i.e. payoffs to staff), as well as incompetent oversight by the government (i.e. not rooting out cellphones and/or jamming communications near the prison). As long as there is a human element that must be constantly vigilant to enforce life in prison vs. execution there will be danger to the public, especially those who need to be protected the most - those who put the murderer behind bars.

  • Posted by: paul8309 - Dec. 18, 2018 5:43 PM ET USA

    Contrary to what you claim: it is indeed possible to hold as a fully Catholic position that the death penalty can **only** be applied when it is needed to protect the common good from the guilty perpetrator. It is a position which is entirely in keeping with Scripture, previous teaching such as the Catechism of Trent, and modern papal teaching such as Evangelium Vitae. It is also a position that can be made consistent with Pope Francis.

  • Posted by: DanS - Dec. 18, 2018 5:00 PM ET USA

    Thanks, Jeff, for articulating the flaws in the Pope’s methods even if his objective (to end capital punishment) is desirable. I wonder if he realizes his “presentist” approach provides the precedent to justify his successors’ dismissal or reversal of his own decrees? It certainly undermines the authority of the Magisterium, but then, maybe that is his true objective.