Supporters of legal abortion frequently make the case that there exist significant barriers to abortion access. They argue that pro-lifers have succeeded in imposing burdensome regulations that are forcing many abortion clinics to close.
They say that these closures have forced many women seeking abortions to travel considerable distances. Indeed, this summer the Guttmacher Institute released a study which tried to make this exact case. The announcement on the Guttmacher website indicates that the mean distance traveled by women to an abortion facility is 30 miles.
However, a closer look at the Guttmacher study reveals that the vast majority of women who obtain abortions actually live in close proximity to an abortion facility. Indeed, the 30-mile mean distance statistic trumpeted on the Guttmacher press release is misleading. A mean distance can be easily distorted by a small number of women who travel very long distances to obtain an abortion. According to the study, the median (50th percentile) distance that a women traveled to obtain an abortion is only 15 miles.
The Guttmacher study, to its credit, is thorough and rigorous. The authors utilize the 2008 abortion patient survey which received responses from over 9,000 women seeking abortions at one of 107 randomly selected abortion providers. The authors break down their results by race, region of the country, income, and other demographic categories. The authors also run a series of regressions to hold constant multiple demographic variables.
However, there also exist some methodological concerns – which likely exaggerate the average distance the women traveled to obtain an abortion. For instance, the authors admit that they could not calculate the travel distances for the 12 percent of the women who filled out a questionnaire but failed to provide their zipcode. These women were disproportionately minority, low income, and had fewer years of formal education. The study indicates that women from each of these demographic groups were statistically more likely to travel less than 25 miles to obtain an abortion.
Furthermore, the authors also acknowledge that 18 percent of the women were not obtaining an abortion at the facility closest to them and were traveling at least 10 miles farther than necessary. The study does not provide any additional information about the characteristics of these women. However, it does show that the mean distance was increased by some women who chose to travel to an abortion facility that was not the closest to them. An interesting follow-up study would be to calculate how close these women lived to the nearest abortion entity – instead of the entity from which they obtained the abortion.
More importantly, the results are heavily skewed by geography. Less than 10 percent of women residing in the Northeast or the West traveled more than 50 miles to obtain an abortion. The figures were higher for women residing in the South and Midwest. However, even among these women fewer than 25 percent traveled more than 50 miles to obtain an abortion. Part of the reason why travel distances are higher in the South and Midwest is because there are fewer abortion facilities in these regions of the country. However, it is also because a higher percentage of women who reside in these regions live in rural areas which tend to be less likely to have an abortion center.
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The lone abortion center in Mississippi has received plenty of media coverage as have allegations that recently passed pro-life legislation in Texas will result in the closure of a significant number of abortion centers in that state. It is true that there are parts of the South and Midwest where women seeking abortions have to travel a considerable distance. However, a more balanced analysis of this Guttmacher study is that the vast majority of women seeking abortions live in relatively close proximity to an abortion facility.
LifeNews Note: Dr. Michael New is a Research Associate at Reproductive Research Audit, an Assistant Professor at The University of Michigan – Dearborn and an Associate Scholar of the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Reprinted with permission from Reproductive Research Audit.