False-correlation watch 2008: Just in time for Halloween, a recent Los Angeles Times editorial has unmasked a common political myth masquerading as "'middle ground' on abortion" fact. That is, the association between adoption and abortion, and the assertion that the former can help prevent the latter. "Facilitating adoptions, especially of hard-to-place children, deserves our strong support," writes Cory L. Richards, senior vice president and vice president for public policy at the Guttmacher Institute. "But it does nothing to affect the abortion rate. To assert that it does is either ill-informed or simply cynical, and it should stop."
Example at hand: Drumming the abortion prevention beat in a recent speech in Florida, Rudy Giuliani said, "We increased adoption by 133 percent [in New York] ... And we found that abortions went down by 18 percent during that period of time. I believe we can do that in the United States." Sounds great. Problem is, it's about as statistically useful as saying, "We increased adoption by 133 percent. Also, people ate more pie."
In other words, there's no causality, or correlation, between a rise in adoption and a decrease in abortion, at least not the way Giuliani frames it. Specifically, as Richards explains, the 133 percent increase in adoptions refers to those of children from New York City's foster care system. It's therefore unrelated to any tally of women choosing adoption over abortion. "Nothing in the data he cites indicates that there was any significant increase in the city's newborn relinquishment rate," says Richards.
Richards does not mention a 2002 Guttmacher study finding (long story short) a correlation between the legalization of abortion and a decline in adoption rates during the 1970s (and the number of "unwanted" children), particularly those born to white women. But times have changed -- single parenthood is more acceptable; more unmarried mothers are in their 20s and more stable -- and the relinquishment rate, though down since the '70s, hasn't shifted much for 20 years. Meanwhile, abortion rates have decreased. A recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that "the decline in abortion rates shows that the decline in relinquishment is not a result of increasing selection of abortion over relinquishment."
The relinquishment rate now hovers around 1 percent -- about 14,000 newborns -- and the number of abortions around 1.3 million. So even if relinquishments doubled (hey, how about we pay women to do it?), each replacing an abortion (unrealistic to begin with), that "would make hardly a dent in the abortion rate," notes Richards. So.
Of course, Giuliani is not the only politician -- from both sides of the aisle -- jumping onto the (not altogether unwelcome) prevention bandwagon by promoting and (sorry, I hate this word too) incentivizing adoption. And promote it we should. But there's a difference between promoting it and oversimplifying it, never mind romanticizing it. There's a difference between promoting it and using it as a nice cute-baby way to avoid addressing the only solution with real grown-up legs: prevention not of abortion but of unintended pregnancy. In other words, [stage whisper]contraception. Oh, and comprehensive sex education.
"The world's lowest rates of abortion by far are found in Western Europe, where very few legal restrictions are placed on abortion but contraceptive use and comprehensive sex education are widespread," notes Richards. "The sooner politicians accept that the only way to meaningfully achieve fewer abortions is to do better in helping women and their partners prevent unintended pregnancies in the first place, the better." Also, more pie.