New York City’s Health Department (motto: It’s for your own good!) released its annual birth and death statistics, and the internet is aflutter, particularly over the numbers on abortion. “Raw” statistics show that 2 out of every 5 pregnancies end with procedures which kill these females’ unwanted fetuses.
I use this language, incidentally, because it is the least euphemistic. Perhaps it is not the pleasantest way—softening truths is the very point of euphemism—but it is the plainest. Let’s not discuss here whether it is moral for a female to kill her fetus (or whether she should have that job hired out). Humans have been killing off fetuses, infants, toddlers, teens, adults, and the aged for all of history. Let’s just not ask whether any of these recipients of homicide had it coming: we will not come to a satisfactory answer. Let’s instead look just at the numbers.
Most people will skip over the Health Department’s technical appendix. A mistake. That appendix explains why the numbers in the report are not really the right numbers, of how difficult it is to count accurately, about the flawed procedures in collection, about how, even, that some numbers are the output of statistical models. This means that whatever use we make of the (approximate) numbers will come attached with a goodly amount of uncertainty; further, an uncertainty that is difficult or impossible to quantify. This goes double if we input the Health Department’s numbers into statistical models of our own, which only can increase uncertainty. Be wary of anybody’s firm conclusions.
The most obvious kind of error is non-reporting. “Spontaneous Terminations of Pregnancy” is tallied; but this number is only from those pregnancies reported to the Health Department. Of those women whose pregnancies end in, say, miscarriage before these women visit a physician, we know nothing. The “Borough of Residence” is given for pregnancies, but don’t know how many people lied, say. We keep these uncertainties in mind when we read that, in 2009, there were 225,667 (tracked) pregnancies, of which about 5% where spontaneously terminated, and of which about 40% (2 out of 5) terminated non-spontaneously (I’ll let this euphemism pass).
Nearly 4 out of 5 pregnancies are terminated non-spontaneously when the mothers (or mothers-not-to-be) were under 15 years old. This falls steadily to about 1 in 4 when the mothers-not-to-be are 35-39. Notice that age buckets in the picture are not constant; and that the “jump” for ages greater or equal to 40 is an artifact of very large bucket. Measurement error will certainly shift these points higher or lower, but the direction of the trend is probably accurate. We cannot, of course, say why from these data alone.
Abortion has been used for male sex selection (e.g. China). Is there evidence of this in New York City? Not so much. The under 15 age bucket only saw 112 live births, so not too much can be made of the low percentage of male babies in this group. And the 15-17 group only saw 2,308 births. There is still a bucket effect for the 40 and older group; but it’s difficult to say which direction the overestimate occurs. Overall, 51.3% babies were boys, a typical figure. We cannot say anything about any particular abortion, but on average, there is not good evidence that male sex selection is occurring.
Marital status (difficult to measure, or so the appendix says) is correlated with abortions. The percent of births to married mothers increases steadily as moms age.
New York City makes it next to impossible to discover the correlation of race on abortion. Forms have to be filled out for each abortion, but they do “not contain the woman’s name or identifying information.” They must contain more information than this, because there are breakdowns by age, and one partial statistic by race, the city just don’t report them. Abortions for ages 15-19, and only these ages, are given by race. Asians 72%; Blacks, 72%; Whites, 64%; Hispanics, 52%.
Except to note that the total number of abortions in the city have decreased slightly through time (as have all births), and that it’s possible to break some numbers down by borough, there’s not much more of interest we can say (about just the numbers).