Context Often a Casualty in ‘War on Women’

by Nathan L. Gonzales May 17, 2012 · 9:40 AM EDT

If you ask a Democratic lawmaker what she had for lunch yesterday, she’d probably tell you about the Republican “war on women.”

But, as with many partisan talking points, context is often ignored in the discussion of one of Democrats’ favorite statistics.

“There have been 1,100 bills introduced across this country to reduce sources for women as it relates to their health,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said at a March 15 Women’s Health Forum. “This is an unprecedented assault on women’s health and the status of women in this country.”

Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen echoed the “over a thousand bills” argument on NBC’s “Meet the Press” six weeks later.

And MSNBC host Ed Schultz presented the same numbers as “facts” on his show last month.

“The leader of the Republican Party says the ‘war on women’ is a lie. Tonight, we will lay out the evidence and prove him wrong,” Schultz said. “There were more than 1,100 bills introduced across the country last year to restrict women’s health rights.”

Schultz, Rosen and Speier aren’t the only Democrats to use the large figure to describe the amount of legislation supposedly targeting women’s access to health care. That number has worked its way into the Democratic-driven narrative about the “war on women.”

But on closer examination, the number is inflated.

The source for the figure is a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, a well-regarded nonprofit organization within the abortion rights community.

After tracking action in state legislatures last year, the group published a summary of its study Jan. 5 under the headline, “States Enact Record Number of Abortion Restrictions in 2011.”

“In the 50 states combined, legislators introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions, a sharp increase from the 950 introduced in 2010,” according to the second sentence of the introduction.

But the post explains two sentences later that the study refers to 1,100 provisions, not just bills. One bill with multiple related provisions is counted multiple times. That could easily be regarded as a distinction without a difference, but things get more complicated.

These 1,100 provisions were offered by both Republican and Democratic legislators, and some of the provisions are supported by those who favor expanding access to abortion. So the number cited by Guttmacher includes provisions favored by the abortion rights community, even though the overall number is being cited to warn about the threat to legal abortion.

“In 2011, there were over 1,100 provisions introduced at the state level [by both Republicans and Democrats] and range across the reproductive health spectrum,” said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute, when asked by Roll Call for clarification.

“Nearly 600 of these provisions would restrict access to abortion,” said Nash, who added that it was a “huge jump” from the 400 restrictive provisions the group sees, on average, each year. But because Guttmacher doesn’t have a detailed list of all the provisions and their authors, it’s virtually impossible to know whether Republicans were solely responsible for the restrictive provisions.

“Of the remaining provisions,” Nash explained, “some expand access, such as provisions that fund family planning services, ensure access to pregnancy care and infertility treatment or establish comprehensive sex education.”

This isn’t the last time that partisans from across the ideological spectrum will reach for the biggest number or most inflammatory rhetoric to make their argument. But, unfortunately, most people won’t take the time to dig deeper into the context of statistics before regurgitating talking points.