The Misleading Nature of Statistics: Planned Parenthood’s Silly 3% Number

I’ve been a pretty big sports fan my whole life, and with that comes a lot of numbers in a variety of sports: batting average, points per game, field goal percentage, completion percentage, on base percentage, quarterback rating… the list goes on and on.  There is no end to the amount of statistics that are tallied for sports.  As I grew deeper in knowledge of sports, particularly football and basketball, I learned how misleading the typical box score stats could be.  For example, it may make a fantasy football nerd happy that his quarterback threw for 365 yards, but if it took him 55 attempts to get there for a mediocre 6.6 yards per attempt, that very well might have been the defense’s gameplan all along to allow that kind of passing yardage.  In other words, a fantasy football geek may be ecstatic, but the quarterback’s actual team is not because they lost.  Also, I’ve learned that most fans don’t have the faintest clue how the quarterback rating is computed.  Since a lot of fans don’t know this, they easily misinterpret what the passer rating is telling them in a given game or over a given season and make bad judgments based on this.

There is a reason why one of Mark Twain’s most famous quotes is, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”  Statistics naturally have the rhetorical force of objective, plain, and irrefutable fact because they are numbers, yet they are easily manipulated to say what people want if listeners are not wary.  If this is true in something as ultimately unimportant as sports, you can bet politicians and organizations, on both sides of the aisle, will gleefully use statistics-laden sound bytes to try to control narratives.  This is not to say that statistics are useless; they are quite useful, but they must be understood with context and with some knowledge of how they are arrived at.

The most recent politically-driven statistic, which actually isn’t that recent but is simply getting more recent attention, is Planned Parenthood’s claim that only 3% of what they do are abortions.  With Planned Parenthood under fire due to the release of these videos depicting them selling baby parts, this number has been bandied about more and more by advocates who are fighting against PP getting publicly defunded.  Like all good misleading stats, this number is correct… in a certain manner of speaking.  However, when one digs deeper into how this number is calculated, it loses all of its persuasive force and instead makes Planned Parenthood and its advocates look desperate and disingenuous.

As many sites have pointed out, the way PP gets at this number is by un-bundling all of its services and counting every single service equally and individually, no matter how big or small.  PP doesn’t have the most detailed records, but even looking through their annual reports shows this practice, where pregnancy tests–you know, those things you can buy at a convenient store for like $10–make up over one million individual “services” that count equally with abortions.  Furthermore, many of these services are given to the same client who gets an abortion, so if a woman gets five different services, with varying costs, those five services are counted five times.  Counted in this manner, PP is correct that roughly 3% of their services are abortions, because they perform over 300,000 abortions per year and count up 10-11 million services.  Too bad such calculation would fail to convince anyone; it’s a bit like a car dealership saying that because they perform more services such as oil and tire changes than sales of cars, they’re more centered around these services than actually selling cars.  Such silly reasoning, plus our natural suspicion of car salesmen, would lead most people to say, “Riiiiight…”

A much better way to ascertain how important abortions are for Planned Parenthood would be to see A) What percentage of pregnant patients of PP get an abortion and B) How much of total revenue abortion services comprise.  Unfortunately, neither number is easy to get at because Planned Parenthood is not obligated to be that detailed since it is a non-profit entity.  There are pretty good ways to estimate some of these numbers though, such as multiplying the typical costs of an abortion that is advertised by PP by the number of abortions performed and then comparing that to their reported total revenue.  Such calculations have arrived at conclusions that about 10-12% of patients (all patients, not just pregnant ones) get an abortion and that abortions make up 15-38% of their non-public revenue.  Even accepting the low-end numbers, it becomes fairly obvious that abortions are not nearly as insignificant to their practice as the 3% number is trying to suggest.  The 3% statistic is so stupid that even some members of the mainstream media are beginning to criticize it.

The amusing thing about all of this, however, is that while this is an interesting (and frankly frustrating) example of uncritical people swallowing a misleading statistic, it is ultimately not that relevant.  The reason Planned Parenthood is trumpeting this number is to keep up this facade that defunding them is somehow depriving women of important healthcare needs, as if other organizations do not exist to provide other services.  This is patently false.  Furthermore, even if we were to accept this silly 3% statistic, it still would not address the central issue of this debate: Is the unborn baby human life, and if so, does the woman have the “right” to end that life simply by choice?  If the baby is indeed human, then it isn’t exactly all that persuasive to say, “Oh, we only unjustifiably kill human beings 3% of the time, so please keep giving us public money.”

Probably the best defense PP can muster is that it is technically illegal to use federal funds to pay for abortions, so defunding them, at least on a federal level, won’t change the abortion services.  However, not only is it naive to think that funds are easily demarcated like that, as if they do not have a ripple effect on the overall financial health of the organization, it still is in line with the desires of many Americans who do not want their taxpayer dollars going to the largest abortion provider in the country, for whatever reason.  Add to the fact that state funds can be used to fund abortions and that many Americans want PP defunded on a state level as well, it can be viewed as a comprehensive move to get taxpayer dollars away from an organization that is heavily involved in an activity many Americans find deeply unsettling.

In any case, however one lands on this issue, it is clear that the 3% number is meaningless.  To be fair, conservatives have made their own errors too, such as the 94% number.  Some conservatives have argued that 94% of pregnant women (not counting non-pregnant women or men) who go to PP end up getting an abortion, based upon PP’s figures.  However, since PP does not keep track of how many pregnant women show up at their clinics (or at least, doesn’t report it), this number, while probably higher than PP would want to admit, is rather difficult to figure out.  It may be worth pointing out that out of all “pregnant-specific” services they offer according to their own numbers, it is true that roughly 94% of such services are abortions, but again, that depends on how you count these services and how many pregnant women show up, which we do not know.  Nonetheless, it is obvious that abortions are far more important to PP than they want to outright say, and it would behoove liberals to admit this rather than throw around such a deceptive statistic.


2 thoughts on “The Misleading Nature of Statistics: Planned Parenthood’s Silly 3% Number

  1. Pingback: Common Pro-Choice Arguments That Wildly Miss the Point | leesomniac

  2. Pingback: “Alternative Facts,” “Fake News,” and the Rhetoric of the Emotional and Close-minded | leesomniac

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