I recently went to see my local member of Parliament — who also happens to be the New South Wales Opposition Leader, Jodi McKay. We spoke about the now notorious ‘Reproductive Rights Bill’ which she had so jubilantly spoken in favour of in the Lower House. And she very kindly gave me a copy of her speech in which she made the oft-repeated assertion:
Between 20 and 25 per cent of women in Australia will have an abortion in their lifetime.
Seeing that Ms McKay is a former lobbyist for Family Planning NSW—and is still the “phone voice” you hear when you call—I initially took the accuracy of her statement at face value. But then I thought, “How does she know?” This crucial piece of statistical information formed the basis of her argument that abortion should be decriminalised in that it made it ‘normal’.
Then I started to do some digging … and this is what I found.
According to a 2005 research brief for the Department of Parliamentary Services which says:
South Australia is the only Australian jurisdiction which collects and routinely publishes comprehensive data on abortions. Other states and territories may collect data on abortions (for example, the Northern Territory and Western Australia collect data on abortions performed within their jurisdictions) but do not publish these statistics.
…The South Australia data is sometimes used to calculate estimates of national abortion rates. For example, in 2002 there were 5417 abortions notified in South Australia, which equals approximately 17.2 pregnancy terminations for every 1000 aged between 15 and 44 years. If this rate were replicated in the total Australian population of women aged 15-44 years (the so-called ‘fertile age range’) for the same time period, there would have been approximately 73 300 abortions in Australia in 2002.
All of which leads to this startling conclusion (emphasis added):
In providing an overview of the data on abortion in Australia which is currently available, this Research Brief has demonstrated how vexed this question is. Each of the three major publicly available data sources on abortion—Medicare data, hospital data and South Australian data—can be used to estimate, in fairly crude terms, the incidence of abortion. However, none of these, either singularly or in combination, can be used to quantify accurately the number of abortions which take place in Australia each year.
Further, after conducting their own investigation, even the ABC network has acknowledged that “The rate of abortion in Australia is lower than you think”. This is because the estimate of their being 80,000 abortions each year was based on figures from 2003 which “…suggested a rate of 19.7 abortions for every 1,000 women of childbearing age.” However, the rate of women seeking an abortion has been dramatically falling since that time:
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This led to the ABC’s researchers to conclude:
The last time the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare waded through the complex world of medical statistics to estimate the number of abortions in Australia was in 2005 using 2003 figures. An ABC analysis of updated versions of the same figures that fed some of the 2005 AIHW report suggests the rate has come down significantly since the 2005 report. For example the Medicare Benefits Schedule item most commonly used for abortions has dropped from 72,967 to 47,683 between 2003 and 2016.
So, the more realistic figure is not 80,000 but 47,683. Using the data out of South Australia, the number of women having an abortion is not 19.7 per 1000 women, but 13.2. And even that is based on information from three years ago in 2016. It all likelihood it is now even less. All of which means that the actual figure is nowhere near the magical 20-25 percent figure being touted by Ms McKay.
What’s more, these statistics don’t take into consideration the total number of women who will go on to have more than one abortion over the rest of their lives. For instance, in 2014, there were 1,676 repeat abortions out of a total of 4,650. That was 36.1 percent of all terminations. Put differently, 1 in 3 women who have an abortion will at some point in their lives go on to have at least a subsequent one:
Once again, how can McKay suggest that 20-25 percent of Australian women will have an abortion throughout their lifetime? Especially when only approximately 1.4 percent of women have an abortion each year and 63.9 percent of women are only accessing the service for the very first time? The statistical information needed to make such an assertion is not only unavailable, but the data which we do have tells a completely different story!
Why is this so important? Because democratic systems of government are predicated on representing fairly the interests of its citizens. As Larry Kramer, the co-founder of the pro-gay group ACT UP was reported in Time as having said regarding the grossly inflated statistic that 10 percent of men were homosexual:
The 10 percent figure became part of our vocabulary…Democracy is all about proving you have the numbers. The more numbers you can prove you have, the more likely you’ll get your due.
There was, of course, only one problem. As the article in Time magazine, “The shrinking ten percent” went on show, surveys were showing that the actual figure for male homosexuality is not 10 percent, but 1 percent of the population! As David van Gend, in his masterful Stealing from a Child: The Injustice of Marriage Equality (Connor Court, 2016), explains:
The 10% figure haunts the popular imagination. This is partly because…close to 10% of teenage males have had some passing homosexual experience – but most of them leave that behind and do not consider themselves ‘gay’. The other source of the 10% figure is the discredited work of zoologist Alfred Kinsey and his child-abusing ‘researchers’ in the 1940s. With an activist’s contempt for scientific process Kinsey deliberately oversampled prison populations of sex offenders to achieve his finding that a full 10% of American adults were homosexual. As the leading American statistician, John Tukey, said after his exasperated dealings with Kinsey, “A random selection of three people would have been better than a group of 300 chosen by Mr. Kinsey”.
But this is precisely the same approach—and ultimately, the falsehood—which is being currently propagated by the leader of the NSW Labor Party, in framing the current debate around the decriminalisation of abortion. The statistical reality is that there is nowhere near 20-25 percent of the female population who will have an abortion throughout their lifetime. In all likelihood, it’s probably only a fraction of that figure.
When it comes to shaping public policy, it is crucial that our elected officials are accurate with the information they relay. Especially when the consequences of decriminalising a particular practice are so serious and far reaching.
It is a very serious breach of trust for the leader of the Labor Party, and a potential Premier of NSW, to seek to “normalise” the practice of abortion by using grossly inflated statistics to support her cause. The people of NSW deserve better.