Using statistics effectively in the abortion debate
by Oxford Students for Life
This blog post is the third in a short three-part series on using statistics in the pro-life debate. This week, slightly later than planned, we are going to look at using abortion statistics effectively in a debate, friendly discussion, argument on the internet or some other kind of conversation.
In our last post, we finished talking about how not to use statistics in the abortion debate, specifically fallacies involving biased samples, false causality and push polls. This week we will turn our attention to the question of how to use statistics effectively and productively in the pro-life debate.
Before we begin to discuss the effective use of statistics, it is worth spending a moment considering some general pointers for having conversations about the abortion debate. Some readers of this blog may not see the point of these, so we need to remind ourselves of something that may initially sound counter-intuitive. As pro-lifers, we do not want to win debates. Instead, our aim is to create a culture where human life is valued equally from conception and without exception, regardless of gender, gender identity, age, sexuality, religion (or lack of one), ethnicity, physical or mental disability. This means that it is important not only to be accurate when having such conversations, but persuasive and compassionate. While we must therefore be able to use statistics effectively, it is also helpful to remind ourselves of how to carry out conversations in a way that will change hearts and minds. This means tailoring your approach to the situation, using appropriate language and arguments; being conscious of the fact that you should be having a dialogue, rather than holding forth on your own; being considerate of tone and body language, and above all, remembering to be compassionate, particularly when discussing hard cases. The Equal Rights Institute offers lots of helpful dialogue tips here and you can read some more useful advice from OSFL here.
It is never persuasive to respond to a bad argument like this! Image via the Equal Rights Institute.
Now that we have reminded ourselves of a few key pointers to bear in mind whenever you are talking to people about abortion, we can return to the topic of statistics.
Take care with the sources used
Something that you should always think about when citing a statistic is the source, and how likely it is to persuade your audience. Generally, neutral or pro-choice sources are more likely to be trusted by a pro-choice person, and in addition, meta-studies are much stronger evidence than individual sources. Whenever possible, try to go back to the original sources, and if you are trying to rebut a dodgy statistic, check the methodology in the original source if available. Be aware that trust in various news sources is strongly influenced by political opinion, so you should try to cite a variety of news sources whenever possible.¹ Finally, please make sure that you don’t share fake news by mistake. A list of sources with large amounts of fake news can be found at here.
Consider what sources are most likely to convince your audience. Image from here.
Only use relevant statistics
Suppose that you’ve gone through the hard work of checking that your sources are reliable. Even then, you still need to be careful with the statistics you cite. Not all of them are useful, even when they support a pro-life position. To give an example of a mistake the author once made when trying to rebut a pro-choice argument that appeals to bodily autonomy, it does not help to cite statistics showing a correlation between abortion and suicide rates.2 Simply citing the statistic by itself is unintentionally misleading, for reasons we discussed previously. Even if it wasn’t out of context, it would still be a very unproductive line of argument, since it does absolutely nothing to rebut the pro-choice idea that abortion is a right justified by bodily autonomy.
The author of this blog post made the mistake described above when attempting to stop OUSU council from renewing its extreme pro-choice policy, but the net effect of the meeting was that the only one of the 50+ delegates who voted against renewing the policy was herself a pro-life Christian.³
In conclusion, try to think about whether your statistics are going to convince your audience of your position. I would have been far more persuasive had I followed my own advice below…
Use statistics to rebut or advance specific points
The best use of statistics is to rebut specific pro-choice points, and to advance specific points of the pro-life cause.
To give a pertinent example, I should have pointed out that OUSU’s pro-choice policy as written could be reasonably interpreted as support for allowing abortion for any reason, a position held by less than 10% of 18-24 year olds and 5% of women in the UK. In contrast, 51% of 18-24 year olds and 54% of women support reducing the time limit for abortion below 24 weeks or banning it altogether except in medical emergencies.
Whether you are speaking in a formal debate, such as OSFL’s debate on Assissted Suicide, or having an informal conversations, use statistics to refute a specific point or advance a specific point of your own.
You could also point out that abortion is inherently queerphobic, since the percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion after a diagnosis of sex-chromosome abnormality ranges between 68-81%, in comparison to historical percentages of 23.4%, 19.1% and 29.9% in Canada, Switzerland and the United States respectively. 4
When told that the government should stay out of women’s reproductive choices, it would be good to point out that “98% of abortions were funded by the NHS. Of these, over two thirds (68%) took place in the independent sector under NHS contract“.
Statistical arguments do, however, need to be applied with care. If you point out that abortions due to rape are very rare then this can be useful in some contexts, but if you are asked to defend the pro-life position in the case of rape, it isn’t always productive. Sometimes using statistics doesn’t help, and this is often one of those cases. Therefore, the key is only ever to use statistics for specific and constructive arguments, which is where they can be most effective.
Hopefully people found this series on using statistics honestly and effectively useful. Most of the tips will also work when talking about other life issues such as assisted dying or embryonic stem cell research. 5 Here are the key points to remember about using statistics effectively:
4) Think about what kind of a discussion you are having and whether statistics are helpful.
3) Always take care with sources used.
2) Only use relevant statistics.
1) When possible, quote statistics to prove specific points.
If there are any questions about anything we’ve discussed or about pro-life issues generally, please leave a comment below and we’ll try to respond quickly.
Dane Rogers is a third year DPhil student in the Department of Statistics based at Merton College, currently working on Chinese Restaurants and Lévy process.