Selected Readings on the Intersection of Data, Abortion Care, and Women’s Health

Photo by Claire Anderson | Unsplash is licensed under CC0.

By: Uma Kalkar, Salwa Mansuri, Andrew J. Zahuranec

As part of an ongoing effort to contribute to current topics in data, technology, and governance, The GovLab’s Selected Readings series provides an annotated and curated collection of recommended readings on themes such as open data, data collaboration, and civic technology.

In this edition, we reflect on the intersection between data, abortion, and women’s health following the United States Supreme Court ruling regarding Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which held that there was no constitutional right to abortion and decided that individual states have the authority to regulate access to abortion services. In the days before and since the decision, a large amount of literature has been produced both on the implications of this ruling for individuals’ data privacy and the effects on women’s social and economic lives. It is clear that, while opinions on access to abortion services are often influenced by deeply held attitudes about women’s bodily autonomy and when life begins, data has critical importance both as a potential source of risk and as a tool to understand the decision’s impact.

Below we curate some stories from news sources and academic papers on the role of data in abortion services as well as data-driven research by institutions into the effects of abortion. We hope this selection of readings provides a broader perspective on how data and women’s rights and health intersect.

As well, we urge that anyone seeking further information about abortion access visit www.ineedana.com via a secure site, and preferably via a VPN. For those looking for menstrual apps, Spot On by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America saves data locally on phones, does not provide information to third parties, and allows for anonymous accounts.

The readings are presented in alphabetical order.

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Data & Privacy Concerns

Conti-Cook, Cynthia. “Surveilling the Digital Abortion Diary: A Preview of How Anti-Abortion Prosecutors Will Weaponize Commonly-Used Digital Devices As Criminal Evidence Against Pregnant People and Abortion Providers in a Post-Roe America.” University of Baltimore Law Review, forthcoming. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3666305

  • In this four-part article, Conti-Cook discusses the history of health data rights and the long-standing ways in which digital evidence produced by pregnant people has been used to prosecute their actions. She discusses how digital technologies help prosecutors lay charges against those seeking abortions and how they help “ the state see[k] control over [them] by virtue of their pregnancy status” by digitally surveilling them.
  • The author examines how “digital, biometric, and genetic surveillance” serves as a vehicle to “microtarget” historically oppressed communities” under a patriarchal and racist social structure.
  • She also discusses how online searches relating to pregnancy termination and abortion, location and tracking data, site history, wearable devices, and app data can be factored into risk assessment tools to assess social service outcomes and federal prosecutions.
  • Conti-Cook ends by reviewing digital hygiene strategies to stop the use of personal data against oneself and foster a more critical use of digital tools for reproductive and pregnancy-related health needs.

Diamant, Jeff, and Besheer Mohamed. “What the Data Says about Abortion in the U.S.” Pew Research Center, June 24, 2022. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/06/24/what-the-data-says-about-abortion-in-the-u-s-2

  • In the aftermath of the overturn of Roe v. Wade (1973), the Pew Research Center published a compilation of facts and statistics about abortion care in the United States obtained through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Guttmacher Institute.
  • The piece describes shifting trends pertaining to the number of legal abortions conducted each year in the United States since the 1970s, the abortion rate among women, the most common types of abortions, and the number of abortion providers over time. It describes, for example, how the procedure has generally declined at “a slow yet steady pace” since the early 1990s. It also notes that the number of providers has declined over time.

Paul, Kari. “Tech Firms under Pressure to Safeguard User Data as Abortion Prosecutions Loom.” The Guardian, June 25, 2022, sec. US news. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/jun/25/tech-companies-health-data-security-abortion-prosecution

  • Paul writes about the concerns of abortion and civil rights activists on how data collected about individuals through apps and online searches might incriminate those seeking or providing abortion services. It notes how geo-location data used by tech companies can make “it easy for law enforcement officials to access incriminating data on location, internet searches, and communication history.”
  • While period tracking apps have received significant attention, the article notes that companies such as Meta, Uber, Lyft, Google, and Apple have yet to publicly announce how they would respond to law enforcement requests on abortion evidence.
  • The piece finally includes a recommendation from the digital rights advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation that companies preemptively prepare “for a future in which they are served with subpoenas and warrants seeking user data to prosecute abortion seekers and providers.” It suggests end-to-end encryption as a default, refraining from collecting location information, and allowing anonymous or pseudonymous access to apps.

Nguyen, Nicole, and Cordilia James. “How Period-Tracker Apps Treat Your Data, and What That Means If Roe v. Wade Is Overturned.” Wall Street Journal, June 21, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-period-tracker-apps-treat-your-data-and-what-that-means-if-roe-v-wade-is-overturned-11655561595

  • Nguyen and James provide an extensive analysis of the ways that period tracking apps track, collect, store, and share data about women’s fertility and menstrual cycle. Following Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), which overturned Roe v. Wade (1973), there has been significant public concern about the (re)use of the data these apps collect.
  • They detail different kinds of data that could be subpoenaed from period trackers and the terminology that users can search for in an app’s privacy policy to understand how their data will be used. It describes, for example, what it means to when Terms & Conditions outline how they will “encrypt” (that is, to scramble into an incoherent string of code), “share” or “sell” (data can be given to third parties such as advertisers), and respond to “requests” (companies may notify the user when a court or government data asks for data).
  • The article closes with an overview of the most-downloaded fertility apps — including Flo, Apple Health, Clue, FitBit, Glow, and Natural Cycles — and where they stand on data privacy.

Sherman, Jenna. “How Abortion Misinformation and Disinformation Spread Online.” Scientific American, June 24, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-abortion-misinformation-and-disinformation-spread-online/

  • In Scientific American, Sherman writes an opinion piece on the growth of online dis- and misinformation in the aftermath of Dobbs. She summarizes how, according to current data-driven research, much of the information people find online about abortion is not reliable and that the highest volume of online searches about abortion tends to be in those states with the most restricted access.
  • Despite much research on abortion, Sherman notes “a lack of access to quality information or care” online, especially for marginalized communities. She also summarizes the results of studies on social media and search engines. In one 2021 study, searches for “abortion pill” tended not to yield scientifically accurate and moderately accessible information.
  • Another study cited in the article found that half of the web pages surfaced by Google on abortion contained misinformation. This appears to be by design — with false information about “abortion pill reversal” and abortion practices generating large revenues for platforms like Facebook.

Data on the Impact of Abortion Access

Amador, Diego. “The Consequences of Abortion and Contraception Policies on Young Women’s Reproductive Choices, Schooling and Labor Supply.” Documento CEDE №2017–43 (2017). https://ssrn.com/abstract=2987367

  • Amador analyzes aggregate provider data from the Guttmacher Institute to assess the relationship between contraceptive use, abortion, schooling, and labor decisions of US women. The dataset follows a sample of women born between 1980 and 1984, with data from interviews starting in 1997 and ending in 2011.
  • A counterfactual model based on the data suggests that a perfectly enforced ban on abortions would raise the rate of standard contraceptive use for women 9.1%. The fraction of children born to single mothers would increase from 30% to 34% while the average amount of schooling after high school would decrease by 3.1%. The number of women with college degrees would drop by 1.8% age points. The estimated average loss in lifetime earnings for women who would have at least had one abortion was estimated at USD 39,172.
  • The author also assesses the impact that free contraception would have, suggesting a 15.7 decrease in pregnancies per 1000 women and an 11.6 reduction in abortions per 1000 women. Accumulated schooling after high school increased by an estimated 3%. An assessment of mandatory counseling laws found that the long-run effect of these laws on women ages 18 to 30 was a 10% decrease in abortion rates.
  • The author concludes that policies such as an abortion ban and free contraception have important effects on schooling and lifetime earnings but only a moderate impact on labor supply.

ANSIRH. “Introduction to the Turnaway Study.” ANSIRH, March 2020. https://www.ansirh.org/sites/default/files/publications/files/turnawaystudyannotatedbibliography.pdf

  • This fact sheet summarizes various analyses stemming from the Turnaway Study, the first study to rigorously examine the effects of receiving abortion services versus being denied access to them. The study is an initiative by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), a program within the UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health. It examines 1,000 women seeking abortion from 30 facilities around the country, with interviews conducted over five years.
  • Studies conducted with the dataset find that the most common reason for women to seek an abortion was not being able to afford a child and/or not having a suitable partner/parent involved to assist with childrearing. Most women don’t feel pressured by counseling that occurs in clinics but find it less helpful when it is state-mandated. Half of all women report seeing anti-abortion protestors at clinics and greater contact with them tends to be more upsetting.
  • Studies also suggest no evidence that abortion causes negative mental health outcomes, although being denied an abortion is associated with elevated anxiety and stress and lower self-esteem. Those who receive an abortion experience “a mix of positive and negative emotions in the days after […] with relief predominating.” The intensity of the emotion diminishes over time but over 95% of women report “abortion was the right decision for them at all times over five years after.”
  • Carrying an unwanted pregnancy tended to be associated with worse outcomes for women’s physical health and socioeconomic status. Women denied abortion who later gave birth reported more chronic pain and rated their overall health as worse. Economic insecurity for women and their families increased almost four-fold. In terms of education, women who received abortions tended to have higher odds of having positive one-year plans while women denied abortions were no more or less likely to drop out of school.

Donohue, John J., and Steven D. Levitt. “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime Over the Last Two Decades.” The University of Chicago, Becker Friedman Institute for Economics Working Paper №2019–75 (May 2017). https://ssrn.com/abstract=3391510

  • This paper primarily argues that legalizing abortion in the 1970s had positive consequences in the significant reduction of crime even two decades later, in the 1990s. In particular, the paper suggested an approximate 20% decrease in crime rates between 1997 and 2014. Not only is abortion legalization a crucial factor but perhaps one of the most crucial ones in the significant reduction in crime rates (see Donohue and Levitt, 2001).
  • A particularly crucial aspect of the data collected was that it took close to a decade for the “number of abortions performed to reach a steady-state” attributed to the variability and heterogeneity of state-level data due to the variability and dynamic nature of evolving abortion legislation and abortion reform.
  • Moreover, the effect of abortion on crime rates was only incrementally visible as “crime-aged cohorts” were gradually exposed to legalized abortion. Donohue and Levitt’s work supports the abortion-crime hypothesis — that increased access to abortion would decrease crime.

Frost, Jennifer J., Jennifer Mueller, and Zoe H. Pleasure. “Trends and Differentials in Receipt of Sexual and Reproductive Health Services in the United States: Services Received and Sources of Care, 2006–2019.” The Guttmacher Institute, June 24, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1363/2021.33017

  • This report describes trends in reproductive and sexual health care across the United States over a 13-year period as told by the National Survey of Family Growth, the only national data source that contains detailed information on sexual and reproductive health. It finds that some 7 in 10 women of reproductive age (44 million people) make at least one medical visit for sexual and reproductive health care each year. However, disparities exist — Hispanic women are less likely to receive care than White women, and the uninsured are substantially less likely to receive care than privately insured women.
  • It further finds that publicly funded clinics were a critical source of care for young women, lower-income women, women of color, foreign-born women, women on Medicaid, and women without insurance.
  • The report also finds that the Affordable Care Act increased the number of women receiving contraceptive services by 8% among women with private providers. There was a complimentary drop among women receiving contraceptive care from publicly funded clinics.

Hill, J. Jackson IV. “The Need for a National Abortion Reporting Requirement: Why Both Sides Should Be in Support of Better Data.” Available at SSRN (May 2, 2014). https://ssrn.com/abstract=2306667.

  • Hill writes a paper urging organizations to improve the status of abortion reporting in the United States. Examining statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control and the Guttmacher Institute, the author finds serious deficiencies, including a lack of voluntary reporting from states, conflicting requirements (or unenforced requirements) about what data is collected, and an absence of timely data.
  • After the passage of Roe, state legislatures attempted to mandate abortion reporting and monitoring; however, concerns over the safety of women’s choice, undue administrative hurdles, and issues over pervasive data collection made it difficult to impose a standardized, non-intrusive, and anonymized data collection practice.
  • Hill argues that these data gaps and paternalistic methods of collecting data have had consequences on the ability of policymakers to make decisions around abortion policy and undermine the public’s knowledge on the issue. He assesses the feasibility of federally regulated abortion data and potential other strategies for achieving reliable, uniform data. He proposes two avenues for a “comprehensive, uniform abortion data” set: a ‘command’ option that requires states to provide and collect abortion information for a federal database or a ‘bribe’ option that monetarily incentivizes states to provide this information.

Knowles Myers, Caitlin, and Morgan Welch. “What Can Economic Research Tell Us about the Effect of Abortion Access on Women’s Lives?” Brookings, November 30, 2021. https://www.brookings.edu/research/what-can-economic-research-tell-us-about-the-effect-of-abortion-access-on-womens-lives/

  • Knowles Myers and Welch write on what current economic research suggests about abortion access on women’s reproductive, social, and economic outcomes.
  • Comparing Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York, Washington, and the District of Columbia (states which repealed abortion bans prior to Roe) to other states, research suggests states that repealed abortion bans had between a 4–11% decline in births relative to the rest of the country — with effects particularly large for teens and women of color. Studies also suggest that abortion legalization reduced the number of teen mothers by 34% and reduced maternal mortality by 30–40%, with little impact on white women.
  • Additional studies indicate that abortion access has a large impact on the circumstances under which children are born. Various studies find that abortion legalization reduced the number of unwanted children, cases of neglect and abuse, and the number of children living in poverty. It also improved long-term outcomes by increasing the likelihood of child attendance in college.
  • Other studies find that abortion and pregnancy have substantial impact on women’s economic and social lives, with pregnancy frequently lowering women’s wages. This fact has substantial implications for “low-income mothers experiencing disruptive life events.” Based on various studies, the authors argue that “access to abortion could be pivotal to these women’s financial lives.”
  • While abortion is driven by views on women’s bodily autonomy and when life begins, the authors find a clear causal link between access to abortion and “whether, when, and under what circumstances women become mothers.” All studies suggest that access to abortion can have substantial implications on education, earnings, careers, and life outcomes. Restricting or eliminating access would diminish women’s personal and economic lives along with that of their families.

Maxmen, Amy. “Why Hundreds of Scientists Are Weighing in on a High-Stakes US Abortion Case.” Nature 599, no. 7884 (October 26, 2021): 187–89. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02834-7

  • A piece by Amy Maxmen for Nature summarizes a recent amicus brief filed by more than 800 scientists and several scientific organizations providing data-driven research into how abortion access is an important aspect of reproductive health.
  • It notes, for example, more than 40 studies suggesting that receiving an abortion does not harm a woman’s mental or physical health but that being denied an abortion can result in negative financial and health outcomes. It also cites a 2019 study of nearly 900 women who “who sought but were unable to get abortions reported higher rates of chronic headaches and joint pain five years later, compared with those who got an abortion,” while a similar 2017 study finds no similar physical or psychological effects.
  • A separate amicus brief submitted to the Court by about 550 public health and reproductive health researchers described how unwanted pregnancies can result in worse health outcomes. It also can disproportionately harm the physical, mental, and economic well-being of Black people according to a separate study.
  • An additional amicus brief filed by economists notes several studies that found that “abortion legalization in the 1970s helped to increase women’s educational attainment, participation in the labor force and earnings — especially for single Black women.”

Myers, Caitlin, and Ladd, Daniel. “Did parental involvement laws grow teeth? The effects of state restrictions on minors’ access to abortion.” Journal of Health Economics, 71, (2020): p.102302. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3029823

  • A paper by Caitlin Knowles Myers of Germany’s IZA Institute of Labor Economics and Daniel Ladd of the University of California, Irvine compiles data on the location of abortion providers and enforcement of parental involvement laws. The researchers seek to assess the impact of laws requiring parental approval for an abortion have on minors seeking abortions.
  • The paper concludes that parental involvement laws may have contributed to a modest decline in teen births (a 1.4% reduction) during the 1980s and 1990s but a 2.8% increase from 1993 to 2014 in women aged 15 to 18.
  • It further finds that laws with an avoidance distance (the distance minors have to travel to avoid parental involvement and can seek an abortion confidentially) have significant effects. In the 1980s, a parental involvement law with an avoidance distance of 100 miles decreased teen births by 1.48%. A parental involvement law with a 400-mile avoidance distance, about a day’s drive, increases the teen birth rate by 4.3%.

Popinchalk, Anna, Cynthia Beavin, and Jonathan Bearak. “The State of Global Abortion Data: An Overview and Call to Action.” BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health 48, no. 1 (January 1, 2022): 3–6. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjsrh-2021-201109.

  • Popinchalf and colleagues at the Guttmacher Institute write in the journal BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health on the urgent need for data on abortion incidents and access to examine disparities in people’s ability to safely terminate a pregnancy.
  • The authors note that the three sources of data on abortion are official statistics, surveys of women, and scientific studies. However, stigmatization and varying legal access undermine the quality of this data and can lead to substantial under-reporting. Even in high-income countries, there can be significant variation in the frequency with which data is published. This variation in quality and availability exacerbates inequities by limiting the number of experiences that can be studied.
  • The authors argue that data availability and quality of abortion care can be improved by investing in country-level surveys and scientific studies. It also argues for reducing stigma through community and provider messaging as it can hinder the accuracy and completeness of datasets.

Tierney, Katherine I. “Abortion Underreporting in Add Health: Findings and Implications.” Population Research and Policy Review 38, no. 3 (June 1, 2019): 417–28. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11113-019-09511-8

  • Tierney notes that there is substantial evidence that abortion is significantly underreported in the United States, especially among Black women and those in lower socioeconomic classes.
  • She supplements this review with her own evaluation of the abortion data in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health), finding that the dataset captures only 35% of expected abortions. Examining data from 1994–1995, 1996, 2001–2002, and 2008–2009, she found severe abortion underreporting; however, there were no significant differences between race/ethnicity, age, or time of abortion and underreporting.
  • Tierney argues that this fact means that Add Health is no better than other surveys in collecting abortion data. She also argues that this underreporting, likely caused by stigma, has substantial implications for research and that researchers should be cautious with self-reports of abortion. Figures need to be evaluated, contextualized, and used with caution.

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