False statistics abound in media coverage on Texas abortion debate — but why is no one questioning them?

January 26, 2024

By Tim Worstall

Lies, damned lies and statistics – especially about highly political subjects like abortion. 

We’re told – right across the media – that Texas has had 26,000 rape-related pregnancies since Dobbs. That since the time that a state can ban abortion there have been 64,565 rape-related pregnancies have happened since then. These are numbers that don’t work – damned statistics. But everyone, everyone, is reporting them as if they’re true, which is the problem here. The media, journalists, are not thinking about what they’re being told and are therefore repeating obviously wrong – even if politically convenient – numbers. 

This is not, from our point of view or stance, about abortion itself. It’s a highly political issue, and many have either different or nuanced views on the subject. This is the media being grossly inaccurate by being grossly gullible. That’s the problem here. It’s dangerous to repeat these highly political claims. Being highly political, they are designed to push a particular political line. The duty of journalism, of the media, is to test and weigh these, not simply repeat them. 

But repeat them they are: NPR, ABCTimeAxios, we’ve even had Kamala Harris, the VP, reacting to this. This has become a new part of the general conversation. Everyone now knows that this is true – all these people couldn’t report it if it wasn’t, right? 

But now, a little thinking about it. The background claim is that some women get raped – that’s appalling and also true. Of course, one rape is too many. It’s also true – appalling – that some women who get raped become pregnant. And, if abortion is entirely banned, with no rape exception, then a raped woman could be forced to give birth to the child of her rapist – triply appalling.

We’re all also going through the political discussion of whether there should be a rap exception to abortion bans. All can and will have different views on this. Therefore, quantification would be a really good idea. How often does this happen; how big an issue is it? 

So here’s the paper itself. And it is, as they say, problematic—the estimate of 26,000 rape-related pregnancies in Texas. The state seems to have 13,000 reported rapes a year. We think it’s unlikely that each rape leads to two pregnancies. But, yes, of course, we know that rape is an under-reported crime. So it is actually possible that the number of pregnancies from rape is higher than the number of reported rapes. Well, maybe. But it’s possible to check this number the other way around. Before Dobbs, Texas reported about 50,000 abortions a year. Yes, the study period here is slightly longer than a year, but 26,000 out of 50,000 is a really high proportion. If this new number is true, then that means that 50%, half, of Texas abortions were the result of rape.

That’s not a believable number.

Or, we can look at the national numbers. This new paper says that 65,000 rape-caused pregnancies happened in only the 14 states that have restricted abortion. That’s their claim. But others have looked at this (the National Library of Medicine) before abortion was this post-Dobbs political issue and concluded that there are about 30,000 rape-related pregnancies per year in the whole country. The new claim is, remember, that only in the states with abortion restrictions the new number is over twice the old national number. 

It’s obvious – and you can use Mr. Google and Mr. Bing to check this yourself – that the claims about the number of rape-related pregnancies in states that restrict abortion are somewhere between wildly outrageous and absurd. And yet half the media is reporting these claims as accurate, and the other half isn’t reporting them at all. 

The claims are obviously so outside the previous science that they must be examined, contrasted, and possibly even rejected. But the American media is repeating them as headlines, which is the problem. If they are reviewed and shown to be exaggerated – which is the minimum we think they are, if not entirely made up – then the correction will never receive the same prominence as the original claim. So, the information well from which we all gain our political education will have been poisoned, which is, again, the problem.

The American media tells us it’s a necessary conduit of the truth to us, the people. So, why aren’t they doing just that? Why are they repeating an obviously outrageous claim?

Surely it cannot just be because the claim meets the prejudices of the media?

And that’s where the real danger is. Journalism is telling us this because it accords with what journalism wants to happen. And if our information sources become this biased, how will we learn what is happening?

We can’t claim to have read all of the internet today since this “study” came out. But we’ve also seen no major media outlet pointing out the problems with it. Which is hugely dangerous if we’re being told what journalism hopes is true, no?

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