Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Data Suck (A Ranting Tour Through the Life of a Statistician)

You're probably complaining about empty promises.  I told you few weeks ago that I was going to deliver commentary on the abortion debate and illustrate the reasons why I vote pro-choice.  So far, I've failed to make good on that promise.  I assure you, it isn't for a lack of trying.

The next phase I've been trying to present is the impact that a blanket ban on abortion would have on the US population growth.  I'm getting close, but I keep running into problems compiling the data.  And so, today, I'm going to blow off some steam and you get to see why it is so difficult to really make informed decisions about controversial topics like abortion.  It's really quite simple.  Data suck1.

Alright, maybe that isn't completely accurate.  When you have good data that were gathered in a systematic way with a specific goal in mind, they are usually wonderful to work with.  However, with a topic like abortion, no one is gathering data in a systematic manner.  The data to answer a question with any kind of complexity have to be gathered from multiple sources.

My current task is to forecast US Population growth under two separate conditions; one in which abortion remains legal, and one in which abortion is banned.  The idea is to compare the populations between the two scenarios.  It is also a necessary step into broader discussions about economic, welfare, and social policies.  So it's an important base of information in my hypotheses about what happens if we make abortion illegal.

Now, consider what we need to know about forecasting population growth.  First, we need to know the current population.  Next, we need to know the annual birth rate.  Third, we need to know the annual death rate.  That part is easy enough.  But that doesn't tell us much about the population except the gross population.  What would be more informative, especially in light of subsequent discussion to follow, would be an understanding of population growth by race.

So now we need the populations, birth rates, and death rates by race.  A lot of that can be found through the CDC.  And for forecasting population growth under legal abortion (the current state of things), that would probably be enough.  What gets tricky is forecasting population growth if abortion were illegal.  Theoretically, this would have an effect on the birth rate, so we need to know how many abortions are performed within each race.  With this information, we can calculate the new birth rate for each race.  Unfortunately, we can't apply that birth rate to forecasted population numbers.

You see, we can increase the birth rate and calculate next year's population quite easily.  However, all those additional births are less than 1 year old for the next year (thank you, Captain Obvious).  This means that the new birth rate doesn't apply to them because their birth rate is known to be 0.  In other words, the age of the population is important in forecasting population growth when we change anything about the current conditions.

So now we're working in three dimensions.  US Population by race and age.  Still sound easy?  Well let me complicate it further.

I can find population data from 2011 by age and race.  the racial categories available to me are

  • African American
  • American Indian or Alaskan Native
  • Asian or Pacific Islander
  • Caucasian
  • Hispanic
The age categories are divided into 5 year segments starting with 0-4, 5-9, 10-14, etc and ending with > 100.  

Birth rate data are available in the same racial categories from 2009 and in similar age categories starting at age 10 and ending at age 50.  But I had to pick them out carefully from a document over 100 pages long.  On top of that, the birth rates were calculated from the population of women (not the total population) and so the numbers won't translate exactly to the 2011 data.

And we can't get abortion data by age and race at all.  The best we can do is find the proportion of abortions by race and the proportion of abortions by age.  But the categories are different.  For race, I can find 
  • African American
  • Caucasian
  • Hispanic
  • Other
And for age I can find
  • < 20
  • 20-24
  • > 25

In order to get abortions by age and race, I had to assume that age and race are independent with respect to abortions (probably not true).  And then I had to make assumptions about how many of those abortions occurred in 10-14 year olds, 15-19 year olds, 25-29 year olds, etc. 2

So far, I've succeeded in building the US population, the current US birth rates, and I'm very close to having projected birth rates under the condition of illegal abortion.  I even have the forecasting routine written and it produces a lovely graph that I'm really very pleased with.  And at this point, after many hours of searching for data, entering tables, writing code, and scratching notes on paper, I've just come to a crucial realization:

I haven't put together the death data yet!

Head, meet desk.

Okay, if you've made it through all of my rant so far, here are the take home messages

  1. When I finish this analysis, it will be flawed.  I will do my best to admit those flaws and explain my assumptions.  At the same time, while it won't be perfect, it will be a decent approximation.
  2. There's a reason that it's so hard to make informed decisions on controversial issues.  The data are hard to compile.  It's rare to find a data set on a controversial subject that allows you to see all the nuance and character of what you are trying to measure.
  3. My head hurts.
Happy Wednesday, everyone!

1 If that sounds weird, keep in mind that data is a plural noun. The singular form is datum.
2 I chose to assign the abortions proportionally to the number of births in each age group. It seems like a relative safe assumption, but probably introduces a little bit of bias.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Regarding Abortion: The Adoption Fallacy

The debate over abortion is the Great American Melodrama.  The debate is emotionally charged, and almost anyone you talk to is going to approach the issue from a rather unilateral position.

"Abortion is murder!"
"It's about women's rights!"
"It's about letting doctors be doctors!"
"It's about freedom to choose!"
"It's about protecting the innocent!"
"It's about men trying to control women!"

No matter who you talk to, anyone who disagrees with you is wrong, and anyone who agrees with you is right, and there's absolutely no gray area anywhere.  At least that's how it seems.

Here's the thing though--in this debate, everyone has a good point.

Yes, I said it.  I think all of those statements above have validity to them.  I agree with all of them, and I disagree with all of them.  The problem, to me, isn't figuring out who is right and who is wrong (you're all right and you're all wrong).  The problem is figuring out what to do about it.

So before I get started, let me just make one thing abundantly clear.  I find abortion to be a morally reprehensible act.  I will never encourage a woman to get an abortion.  Reading about the procedures makes me physically ill, and at times has made me want to weep.  At the same time, I have lived a privileged life, have never been pregnant, and have never had a menstrual cycle.  I will not ever judge a woman for choosing to have an abortion.  I do not and I cannot comprehend the issues that a woman must balance when making this decision and so I will always assume that she made the best decision she could at the time and leave God to sort out the rest1.

But I am still pro-choice.  That is, I believe that abortion should be a legal option for women as a matter of social policy.  Let's start breaking down why.

One of the arguments I often hear for making abortion illegal is that adoption is a better alternative that protects the life of the child.  Fair enough, I say.  If you can provide an adoptive home for every unwanted pregnancy, maybe we can talk.  I still have reservations about rights of the women vs rights of the child, but let's at least look at the feasibility of adoption.

The figure below shows the annual number of abortions in the United States from 1998 to 20082.  It seems like a nice little trend that abortion is becoming less common.  But you should be aware that these numbers could be affected by better access to contraception, stricter regulations on abortion, and most importantly, states dropping out of the reporting program (that is, we may just not be counting the abortions that are happening).

So, in 2008, a little over 825,000 abortions were reported to the CDC.  So we only need to come up with 825,000 adoptive homes per year!  Should be easy enough.  But wait--not all states report their abortions to the CDC.  Most notably, California does not participate in this reporting.  In 2010, the Guttmacher Institute estimated that there were 1.2 million abortions in the United States. This would suggest that each year we could be failing to account for almost 400,000 abortions.  The 1.2 million number is frequently cited by all sides of the abortion debate, so we'll stick with that number for now.

Now, let's go find out how many adoptions take place every year.  It turns out that in 2008, there were 135,813 adoptions in the United States3.  This includes all public, private, and foreign adoptions.  That means that in addition to our current number of adoptions, we need to find 1.2 million additional adoptive families every year in order to replace all of those abortions.  That's an 884% increase in the number of adoptions.  We've got our work cut out for us here.

The idea isn't without merit, however.  We know that not everyone who seeks to adopt is able to succeed.  The question is whether there are enough people who would like to adopt.  The 1998 National Survey on Family Growth found that for every successful adoption, there were 3.3 adoption seekers.  That means an adoption success rate of (1/3.3) = .303 per hundred, or 30.3%.  Applying this information to our adoption data, we can generate the graph below which shows the number of adoptions, their source, and the number of adoption seekers who failed to adopt.

What this tells us is that in 2007, there were 267,794 adoption seekers who ended up not adopting.  In 2008, there were 272,314 such adoption seekers.  The next graph puts it into perspective, but in short, if we were to allow any and all of those adoptions seekers to adopt a child, we still would have only accounted for 22% of all of the abortions that happened in a year.  That means we still need to find homes for 78% of the unwanted children that are aborted each year.

This assumes, of course, that we would even want every adoption seeker to be able to adopt.  Surely, some are not permitted to adopt because they fail various screenings, etc.  You could make a case that the screenings are too rigorous, but any time you loosen the rules on the screening, you expose more adopted children to risk.  There's a certain trade off there that has to be dealt with.  

Also, many people opt out of adopting because of cost, and many people opt out of adopting because the decide not to take on the severe emotional burdens that can accompany adoption4.  We can be fairly certain that we wouldn't be able to give a child to all 272,000 of those seeking adoption.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say we could.  Now let's add another dimension of complexity onto this.  Let's take a look at the number of abortions by race.  The figure below is similar to the previous figure, but stratifies the abortions by race.

Hypothesize for a minute that we make abortion illegal and that we also allow all of those who failed to adopt to go ahead and adopt.  Who are they likely to adopt?  Based on adoption statistics, the children that we are no longer aborting are likely to be adopted as displayed below.  The lighter shaded areas are those children who we adopt out, and the darker areas are those for whom no adoptive family can be found.

Look at that graph carefully.  If we were to simultaneously make abortion illegal and also allow each parent seeking adoption to adopt, in any given year, we would find homes for 37% of the Caucasian children that would have been aborted, 28% of Other races, 21% of Hispanics, and only 8.5% of African Americans.  The rest of the children would either need to be placed in orphanages, foster care, or remain with the birth mothers/families.

There will be a lot of people that argue that children should stay with their birth mothers and families, and that we shouldn't be trying to adopt away all of our would-be abortions.  I agree that we can't and shouldn't adopt them all away.  I agree that the primary responsibility to care for the children should fall upon those who procreated them.  Unfortunately, reality kicks in and the social consequences of such a policy aren't so cheery.  A host of social issues raises its head and far too much of it will tie back into the the disproportionalities contained in that last graph.  We'll dig into that in a second blog post.  Right now, we need to wrap up this one.

Here's my thesis statement: Adoption makes a lousy solution to the abortion problem.  The reasons

  1. We abort more than 1.2 million children each year.  We adopt only 180,000.
  2. Even if we allowed more adoption seekers to adopt, we could only account for 22% of abortions at best.
  3. Though we haven't discussed it much here, if we discontinued all foreign abortions, we wouldn't have much additional impact.
  4. Also not discussed, about 48,000 children are born through IVF each year5.  Since about a third of those are multiples, that's about 32,000 families that could adopt if we disallowed all IVF procedures.  That still wouldn't make much of a scratch.

As you can see, abortion is a big problem.  The hand waving of encouraging adoption (the Texas bill that was recently passed had measures for encouraging adoption, which was one of the aspects used by some to justify restricting abortions) doesn't realistically address the size of the problem.

While it seems to the pro-life advocate that expecting women and families whose children can't be adopted ought to take care of their own children, we'll see in the following post (or posts, I'm not sure how many I'll be writing) the societal cost in terms of economics, employment, welfare, criminal activity, population growth, drug use, teen pregnancy,...... should I continue?

So yes, as a moral issue, it seems abundantly clear that abortion is wrong.  As a societal issue, I think we'll find that banning abortion is much worse for everyone.

1 And I suspect God will be far more forgiving and understanding of these cases that most people here are.
2 Raw data:
4 See the following link for a brief treatment on the reasons people choose not to adopt.

Friday, July 5, 2013

"Let Sex Garnish Thy Thoughts Unceasingly"

In a podcast on LDS discourse around sexuality, one of the panelists pointed out a piece of LDS scripture that has really come to irritate me.  In a letter to Moroni describing the depravity of the Nephites and Lamanites, Mormon explains how far the Nephites have fallen:

many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue—
And after they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery1. (Moroni 9:9-10)
 What virtue, exactly, did the Nephites take from these women?  Isn't virtue an internal construct?  How can you forcibly remove from a person the goodness of their soul?

The panelist ties this poor choice of wording from Moroni to a couple of things.  First, it is evident that these are historical men interpreting these acts from their historical context2.  Second, this reading only makes sense if you conflate virtue with virginity.  This conflation is a common theme throughout the podcast, and they make a pretty compelling point.  We have hijacked virtue into being a sexual term3.  Perhaps it's time we did something about that.

When Plato wrote Meno, he carefully wrote the dialog so that Socrates would avoid giving a solid definition to virtue (as opposed to the virtues).  Instead, Socrates tried to lead Meno to a more nuanced definition that involved a balance of the three parts of the soul (the physical, emotional, and intellectual).  Virtue, then, is power derived through a healthy and productive balance of competing needs.

The LDS law of chastity is virtuous, then, because it balances the physical needs and desires for sex with the spiritual needs and desires given by the Lord.  I'm going to leave off there.  I'm not quite ready to go off on chastity, virginity, and virtue just yet.  Let's just leave it at virtue is not virginity and virginity is not virtue.

I actually bring up this idea of virtue in order to prepare to take on another difficult topic that has been in the news lately.  I'm going to take on abortion.  I'm a pro-choice Mormon, and that isn't well received in some circles, but the laws being passed in Ohio and Texas are really disturbing to me.  So in the next couple of weeks (when I get back from Scout camp) I'm going to put together the reasons why I am pro-choice, and why I think legalized abortion is a virtuous4 social policy.

Maybe when I'm done with that I can take on virtue and sexuality.

1 Perhaps this is a topic for another day, but is it required of Mormons to believe that being raped is actually worse that being tortured and eaten? Mormon seems to think so, but I have to admit, I'm extremely skeptical.  And don't even get me started on the absurdity of verse 9 being used in the Personal Progress manual to describe to young women to sacredness of virginity.

2 The Book of Mormon was both written and translated in a time when rapes were covered up, never spoken of, and sources of great shame for families. While I am trying to look past this cultural short coming among those who wrote and translated, I've become rather unaccepting of the culture that perpetuates this fallacy.

3This is, arguably, not just a Mormon problem, but a more pervasive problem throughout the human race.

4Remember, the balance of competing needs.

Just a quick note on the title of this post--it's a spoof of Doctrine and Covenants 121:45.  As long as we culturally think of virtue as a primarily sexual term, we're going to distort the great messages that can be found elsewhere in the scriptures.