Visualizing the future of women’s health if Roe v. Wade is overturned
How do we best visually communicate the gravity and impact of the case currently under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court?
On Wednesday morning, I clicked open the Axios AM newsletter in my inbox. The newsletter starts with Axios’ own Smart Brevity formula (which I’ll write about in a separate post soon because I like it so much): the number of words in the piece and how long it will take you to read the content. In this case, 1,255 words in 4.5 minutes. So I did spend only about 5 minutes reading the newsletter, but I have been contemplating a choropleth map by Axios’ Thomas Oide and Sara Wise for two days. (What’s a choropleth map? Here is a good definition with examples.)
The map aims to show the impact of abortion bans that would be enacted if the Supreme Court of the U.S. overturns Roe v. Wade on the distance women would have to travel to obtain a safe, legal abortion. Why is this issue resurfacing now? A Mississippi bill seeks to ban abortion after 15 weeks, which is seven to nine weeks before the accepted medical and legal definitions of fetal viability, or the ability of a fetus to survive outside the mother’s womb. (Roe and later decisions depend upon the definition of fetal viability.)
Before you read on, take a look. Do you think this visualization is effective at accomplishing its goal? Why or why not? (Let me know in the comments, too!) I’ve been thinking about the static image, but this morning I discovered (after clicking the link to the full story 🤦🏼♀️) that there’s an interactive version of the viz, too. Is the interactive viz more, equally, or less effective?
Now that you’ve formed your own opinion, I’ll share mine: this viz is highly effective in its static iteration, but the interactive version is exceptionally effective. Why? First, the color palette chosen emphasizes the gravity of the issue. If Roe is overturned, a dark era for women’s health, which Republican-led states have been planning for, would begin.
With their support of Donald Trump and his 🤮 eventual election, Republicans all but guaranteed the appointment of conservative justices to secure this outcome. Twelve states — Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Utah — preemptively enacted so-called “trigger laws” that go into effect as soon as Roe is overturned. This is a major reason why this case regarding a law passed by one state, Mississippi, has implications for nearly the entire south and midwest. I fear that my own state, Florida, would quickly enact a restrictive law, too, under the leadership of the utterly inept Governor Ron DeSantis.
“Data visualization is a language. It’s a means to convey an opinion, an argument.” — Kim Rees, Periscopic
Ok, ok. Back to the viz. Many choropleth maps of the U.S. show state-level detail (or less commonly, region-level). Since these are state laws, the visualization designers could have chosen to show the data at the state level, but the deeper county level data is much more effective, revealing the nuances of the story. This is especially true in the interactive version of the map where the tooltips provide even more information. County-level detail helps to distinguish areas of states with relatively good access to abortion versus areas in the same state with poorer access (New Mexico is an example, with good access in the central portion of the state near Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and not-so-good access in the eastern and — to a lesser extent — western portions of the state).
Finally, the points on the choropleth map show us exactly where abortion providers are currently located and, particularly in the interactive viz, exactly where there would be the most impact to women seeking abortion services.
Now consider the tilemap (or cartogram, depending on the nomenclature you prefer) below, from another Axios story on the topic. It’s aim differs — instead of showing the areas where there would be no abortion access by county and which specific clinics would close, it provides a quick state-level summary of how abortion rights would be affected in each state as soon as Roe was overturned. My initial reaction to the choropleth map is visceral before I even begin to reason about the details. My initial reaction to the tilemap is more cognitive. I make a note of how my state of residence and others would be affected, but it doesn’t make me want to dig deeper.
It’s glaringly obvious that I am pro-choice, I’m sure, and there is a lot more I could say on the topic, but I’ll leave you with another question to consider: What if states could regulate or ban any other medical procedure the way they do abortion?
I am curious to know your thoughts about this viz and about choropleth maps and tilemaps generally. Let me know in the comments.
Also, thanks to Andy Cotgreave of Tableau for making me aware of the Kim Rees quote I included. He cited it in his recent DataCamp webinar, “Seven Tricks for Better Data Storytelling with Tableau”.