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Logical Fallacies and Radical Policies

June 8, 2011, 5:30 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

On a Catholic activism panel at the Faith and Freedom conference last week, Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, made a surprising claim to defend her support for defunding Planned Parenthood, stating that “Every year that contraception and family planning increases, the abortion rate also increases in direct proportion… this is an undeniable fact.”

The core of her argument hinges on the juxtaposition of statistics on increasing rates of contraception usage with increases in the abortion rate over the same time period, hence “proving” that expanded access to preventative services fails as a tactic to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortion, and should therefore be abandoned.

If it’s not instantly obvious, this analysis fails basic logical standards. Suggesting that because two things happened at the same time one therefore caused the other is the oldest logical fallacy in the book. It even has a Latin name: “cum hoc ergo propter hoc,” (with this, therefore because of this). If Dannenfelser did not mean to make such a suggestion, then why did she bring up this factoid?

In contrast, an actual study from the well-respected Guttenmacher Institute in 2003 addressed this issue directly and concluded that there is actually an important third factor causing both of these increases — desired family size (fertility levels):

When fertility levels in a population are changing, the relationship between contraceptive use and abortion may take a variety of forms, frequently involving a simultaneous increase in both. When other factors–such as fertility–are held constant, however, a rise in contraceptive use or effectiveness invariably leads to a decline in induced abortion–and vice versa.

Of course the debate over Americans’ decisions about when to have children is ultimately what’s of interest to Dannenfelser. In a follow-up interview after the panel, she explained:

DANNENFELSER: There are deeper causes than just the funding. The causes are [contraception's] effect on human behavior and with increased levels of contraception, increased availability. The argument has been you cut Planned Parenthood, you increase the abortion rate when in reality you increase all that exponentially and human behavior starts to change…There are a lot of underlying reasons why there is that relationship. The bottom line is that to lose the connection between sex and having children leads to problems.

Rather than using faulty logic about the efficacy of contraception, SBA List should admit that limiting access to contraception is one of their intended policy goals regardless of its effect (or lack thereof) on abortion rates. I imagine they try to keep this aim under wraps because they know how unpopular it is with mainstream Americans. Their extreme views on sexuality might play well among the minority of Americans looking to stoke the culture war fights about sexual norms started in the 1960s, but they don’t have much relevance to the 99% of American women of child-bearing age who have used contraception or the 80% of self-identified pro-lifers who support access to contraception.

N.B. In her interview, Dannenfelser alluded to some studies that she claims make her point about the link between abortion and contraception more specifically, but her organization has not yet responded to an e-mail request to provide them.

Jeff Bridges contributed to this post

UPDATE: Here’s the video of Dannenfelser’s original quote on the panel:

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