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On the Timing of CDC Abortion Data Publication

February 4, 2011

If the Obama administration were deliberately hiding abortion rate data in order to obscure the effects of his presidency or health reform legislation (as the National Review suggested) you’d think he would wait until it was time for data from *after he was actually elected* to be released.

2008 data? Before he was elected (mostly) or health care reform had been voted on? Unless you are positing the existence of time travel, that’s a serious flaw in logic.

It’s not even truly accurate to characterize the annual reports as though they have nearly always been published in the November three years after the data year, for as long as the reports have been released, as RedState did in their “breaking” story. RedState avoided this truth by saying, “The Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report (MMWR) [was published] the week after Thanksgiving. The report lagged the data by three years, i.e., the 2006 data were printed in 2009″ and calling November publication of the data “long-established practice.” They neatly avoiding actually *saying* that the data has “always” been published in November, but certainly leave readers with that impression.

I actually took the time to look at the release dates of these reports, all the way back to the 1977 data (1979 report). They are linked from http://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/data_stats/Abortion.htm, and the citations for all but the 1996 publication are in this public MyNCBI collection.

As it turns out, November publication has been the norm since exactly November 2002 (the 1999 data).

The dates of publication were as follows:

Data Year Publication Month & Year
2006 Nov 2009
2005 Nov 2008
2004 Nov 2007
2003 Nov 2006
2002 Nov 2005
2001 Nov 2004
2000 Nov 2003
1999 Nov 2002
1998 June 2002
1997 Dec 2000
1996 July 1999
1995 July 1998
1993-94 Aug 1997
1992 May 1996
1991 May 1995
1989 Jul 1992
1988 Jul 1991
1986-87 Jun 1990
1984-85 Sep 1989
1982-83 Feb 1987
1981 Jul 1984
1979-80 May 1983
1978 May 1981
1977 Aug 1979

If you review this closely, you’ll see that of 25 publications, 8 took place in November of the third year after the data year. 7 took less than this amount of time, 5 took longer, and in 5 cases the publication represented a combination of at least two years. Only in the last 8 years has the publication ever occurred in the same month in more than two successive years.

Look, I’m a librarian. I take data access issues very seriously. If any effort to hide abortion data is actually happening, that’s a huge problem. And I think that the head of the press office at the CDC should get to the bottom of what was said to RedState and why – true statement, poorly informed/worded response, or made-up quote? Right now, the CDC has denied the statement that there were no plans to release the data, and publication has been scheduled for February 25th. Bottom line: it’s important to have access to this data whatever they show.

Realistically, the data are unlikely to show a major change, no matter who was in charge. Abortion rates steadily declined from 1996-2000, and have been pretty level since that time. To be notable and worthy of hiding, the rates would have had to have decreased or increased dramatically in 2008, the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency. Anti-Obama folks would presumably not cheer a huge increase in that year, but would suspect the CDC of hiding a huge decrease. In the absence of any major anti-abortion policy “victories” in late 2007 or 2008 itself, however, such a dramatic decrease is unlikely, and would be difficult to attribute to Presidential action.

Soon enough, the data will come out, and we can argue over the meaning of the contents then. I would still like to know more details about the delay. To attribute it to a widespread conspiracy to hide politically damaging abortion data rates, however, is likely wishful thinking on the part of the anti-choice, anti-Obama crowd.

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