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Colorado study of IUD effectiveness ignores abortion realities, caveats, and bias

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Surprise, surprise: A study published by Guttmacher didn't tell all the facts about abortifacients. And the mainstream and pro-abortion media outlets that trumpeted it left out a number of the study's important caveats.

On June 24, a Guttmacher Institute press release proclaimed that a program to increase birth control access in Colorado "may have contributed to considerable declines over a three-year period in birthrates and abortion rates among low-income 15–24-year-old women."

The study, by researchers at the Colorado Department of Public Health, is coming out in Guttmacher's Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health in September. According to the authors, they tracked "abortion rates and births among high-risk women, and the numbers of infants receiving services through the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).” All of the women in the study were aged 15 to 24 and were compared to "expected trends." Tracking took place for several years.

The results, of course, were tremendous! From the study's summary, with emphasis added:

By 2011, caseloads had increased by 23%, and [long-acting reversible contraceptives] LARC use among 15–24-year-olds had grown from 5% to 19%. Cumulatively, one in 15 young, low-income women had received a LARC method, up from one in 170 in 2008. Compared with expected fertility rates in 2011, observed rates were 29% lower among low-income 15–19-year-olds and 14% lower among similar 20–24-year-olds. In CFPI counties, the proportion of births that were high-risk declined by 24% between 2009 and 2011; abortion rates fell 34% and 18%, respectively, among women aged 15–19 and 20–24. Statewide, infant enrollment in WIC declined 23% between 2010 and 2013.

Within weeks, the trumpeting had spread, with the liberal blog Daily Kos, RH Reality Check, and CNN all jumping on the proverbial bandwagon. None of these outlets included the qualifying "may" the Guttmacher press release and the study's authors included in their analyses. 

However, the study has a number of important problems that should be examined before anyone takes its results too seriously.

The most critical is that the study says abortion rates dropped. However, one of the LARCs used in the program is the intrauterine device (IUD). As recently examined by Just Facts President James Agresti, scientific analyses show that IUDs can in fact kill an unborn child. (Full disclosure: I do occasional consulting for Just Facts.)

Thus, the claim that abortion rates dropped ignores the abortion potential of IUDs.

Writing for The Federalist, Christian blogger Lydia McGrew noted other flaws.

According to McGrew, readers of the study should not confuse causation and correlation -- in other words, while birth rates and abortion rates went down, were other factors present? McGrew specifically asked if there were "relevant changes in [the relevant] counties during the same time period, such as, say, increased pro-life presence and counseling?"

Likewise, the sample size of the study is not given, which means the study could be very large and thus reliable...or very small and thus inconclusive. And McGrew notes that while the program's targeted demographic saw a decline in birth rates, such rates also "declined in Colorado as a whole" but were not accounted for in the study. Thus, says McGrew, "the conclusion that the majority of the decline in all births in Colorado is a result of a decline among poor women in target counties is unjustified in the publication."

In perhaps the most important of her critiques, McGrew says she suspects that it was not just availability of IUDs and other devices that caused the drops. Rather, she cites evidence that the program essentially pushed women to use the devices, which she says is "a more aggressive approach than merely making the methods available at no cost."

So what is the conclusion one should come to after looking at reporting on the study? Basically, that the study is pretty useless. At least it was privately funded, though -- no taxpayer dollars appear to have been wasted.

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