Saturday, January 26, 2008

More Deceptive Rhetoric from the Abstinence Crowd

Question: How can you tell an abstinence advocate is being intellectually dishonest?
Answer: She is talking.

In yet another ironic situation of lying for Jesus, Rebecca Hagelin treats us to a statistical nightmare of an analysis to get the answer she wants, which is, of course, that we should promote abstinence-only as the form of birth control for teens:

Hagelin: According to the CDC, the nation’s teen birth rate rose in 2006 for the first time since 1991. Among girls 15 to 19, the rate went from 40.5 births per 1,000 females in 2005 to 41.9 births a year later.

Oh my god, the horrors, right? Wrong. As is so common with such advocates, Hagelin cherry picks her data. I was immediately suspicious when I saw the age category she used: 15-19 is a strange range. After all, 15 and 19 are light years apart socially. I'm not nearly as concerned about 18 and 19 year olds, who are after all legally adults, as I am with 15 year olds giving birth, lacking even the possibility of having the means to care for those children, financially or cognitively. So why would someone cobble together such a strange group? I'd think a range of maybe 11-17 would be the better measure of the social problem of "teen pregnancy". Here's the full story from the CDC.

CDC: The report shows that between 2005 and 2006, the birth rate for teenagers 15-19 years rose 3 percent, from 40.5 live births per 1,000 females aged 15-19 years in 2005 to 41.9 births per 1,000 in 2006. This follows a 14-year downward trend in which the teen birth rate fell by 34 percent from its recent peak of 61.8 births per 1,000 in 1991.

Let's put that in perspective. Since 1991, the birth rate for teens and young adults dropped 34.5%, or roughly 1.5 / 1000 a year. The gain Hagelin focuses on is only 1.4 / 1,000. Now granted, a change in a trend like this is warrant for some attention to this stat, but all by itself it doesn't make much of a case. After all, this graph is a hockey stick on the ground with a broken blade. The head CDC statistician agrees:

"It’s way too early to know if this is the start of a new trend," said Stephanie Ventura, head of the Reproductive Statistics Branch at CDC. "But given the long-term progress we’ve witnessed, this change is notable."

This one blip could simply be an outlier on the high variance end of the stat. It might have reached an effective bottom to whatever measures have caused the gains to date. If you decided to lose weight by no longer eating the 10 doughnuts a day you normally eat, and graphed your weight, it would look like the 15-19 year old graph: dramatic steady improvement for a time, and then a bottoming out with some random fluctuation. The next two data points will make or break Hagelin's case that the birth rate is truly rising again.

However, more to the core of the argument, given that people like Hagelin have been telling us wrongly for 14 years that the sex education and access to birth control would causes the birth rates to rise, what reason do we have to believe them now? Their hypothesis was disproved long ago. Sex education and free access to birth control has made 15-19 year old birth rates go down for 14 years. If those birth rates are truly rising, it is due to another cause. My guess would be the increased maturity of children of age X relative to those 10 and 20 years ago, and other social trends. But it's certainly not the availability of condoms. That test has been run 14 times, and the abstinence crowd lost.

And now we come to the smoking gun of Hagelin's deception. Again, why did she pick 15-19 year olds? Well, one look at all of the data tells us:

CDC: The birth rate for the youngest teens aged 10-14 declined from 0.7 to 0.6 per 1,000, and the number of births to this age group fell 5 percent to 6,405. The birth rate for older teens aged 18-19 is 73 births per 1,000 population –- more than three times higher than the rate for teens aged 15-17 (22 per 1,000). Between 2005 and 2006, the birth rate rose 3 percent for teens aged 15-17 and 4 percent for teens aged 18-19.

I'll forgive Hagelin for excluding the 10-14 year olds. Their births are too low to effect the total meaningfully. But I won't forgive her for lumping the 15-17 group with the 18-19 group. High schoolers and college kids are different breeds. After all, the proportion of 18-19 year olds who are married is far highers than it is for 15-17 year olds. Lumping them together would be like commenting on average dog speed of a group made up of half bulldogs and half greyhounds. The real trouble group, the 15-17 year olds, went from ~21.3 / 1,000 in 2005 to 22 / 1,000 in 2006. This is hardly an alarming trend, and subject to all the limitations of interpretation noted above.

Other stats lend themselves to a very different picture than the one Hagelin would have you form:

CDC: The study also shows unmarried childbearing reached a new record high in 2006. The total number of births to unmarried mothers rose nearly 8 percent to 1,641,700 in 2006. This represents a 20 percent increase from 2002, when the recent upswing in nonmarital births began. The biggest jump was among unmarried women aged 25-29, among whom there was a 10 percent increase between 2005 and 2006.

The rise in unmarried births is mostly among adults, not teens, and there are all sorts of legitimate reasons unmarried adults might have children. Unmarried adults are also far more capable of caring for their children than are teens, and in equal economic and social environments, children of single parents do not lag behind those with two.

CDC: Birth rates increased for women in their twenties, thirties and early forties between 2005 and 2006, as well as for teenagers.

The preterm birth rate rose slightly between 2005 and 2006, from 12.7 percent to 12.8 percent of all births. The percentage of births delivered before 37 weeks of gestation has risen 21 percent since 1990.

The low birth weight rate also rose slightly in 2006, from 8.2 percent in 2005 to 8.3 percent in 2006, a 19 percent jump since 1990.

So birth rates are increasing across the board, and the really troubled births remain low, albeit with slight upward trends. Funny Hagelin didn't tell us that. She told us only what fit her preconceived agenda. When she claims "plenty of reliable studies demonstrate that abstinence education does work", should we expect her approach to be any different?

Certainly some of that increase is due to increasing wealth and superior medicine. Those who were once doomed to remain infertile are now able to procreate. Those who once died on the operating table now live to have more children. I cannot say I find this a necessarily positive trend. It's hard to look at the world and decide what it needs is more people. However, it surely does not lend itself to the sort of simplistic analysis people like Hagelin would apply to it.

Hagelin: Birth-control pills. Condoms. Diaphragms. All ... send an unmistakable message to teens: “You have no self-control, and we don’t expect you to. We know you’re going to ‘do it,’ so just make sure you’re ‘safe’ when you do....we should be teaching the whole truth - that sex outside of marriage (regardless of age) is always unhealthy, risky and morally wrong.”

Maybe it just sends a message to them that we understand the realities of the world, and are interested in them living healthy, full lives, rather than burying our heads in the sand and pretending that an oft-failed unrealistic simplistic policy like abstinence-only education is the answer to a complicated social problem. Hagelin gives away the game with that last statement. Sex outside of marriage is always unhealthy, risky and morally wrong? That certainly is going to come as a shock to the millions of unmarried adults who have healthy, happy, responsible sex lives. But to Hagelin, as with so many abstinance-only promoters, ideology is more important than reality.

1 comment:

Michael Ejercito said...

Hagelin is just jealous because she could not get laid if she stumbled into a bar packed with drunken submariners fresh off a six month tour of undersea duty.

That is what the whole abstinence movement boils down to. It boils down to a bunch of people who can not get laid, so instead of fixing themselves so they can join the rest of humanity, they condemn the rest of humanity as inferior for not keeping their virginity.