WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- Think tanks -- whose purpose is to generate the research and ideas that drive informed public debate about major issues -- have completely failed in the realm of abortion policy.
These institutions have done virtually no work on the issue, and in the absence of thorough research and verifiable data, government policy decisions about abortion are based on political agendas and moral arguments instead of reliable analysis.
The fact that the abortion policy debate was so easily hijacked long ago by the opposing pro-choice and anti-abortion camps is the proof that the policy research institutions are skirting their role. While the warring sides have duked it out with questionable data skewed by their agendas, the national dialog on abortion shows a conspicuous lack of the sort of objective analysis -- of the social and medical impacts of abortion policy -- that think tanks routinely produce for a roster of other health policy issues.
There is, simply, a great deal of opinion but very little fact backing the positions of the both sides in the abortion debate. Think tank experts agree that critical policy decisions are based on moralizing rather than objective research.
"It is really an intractable public policy issue," says Alina Salganicoff, vice president of women's health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. "Not a lot of this is based upon science or fact. I don't think the policies that are made limiting abortion access are based upon scientific fact."
For instance, although both pro-choice and pro-life advocates make various claims for and against abortion -- that they are protecting the health of the mother, or the life of the fetus -- there is little objective data from unbiased sources. Objective research into how abortion policies affect the quality of care when the procedure is performed, or how such policies affect the frequency of abortion, is limited at best. The small amount of research done at the university level is largely marginalized in the debate.
In other important areas of health-care policy, think tanks produce research, data and recommendations that are integral to the policymaking process. But abortion policy has been largely segregated from the health-care policy fold.
Certainly it is partly due to the polarized and sometimes violent nature of the debate. A related factor is surely think tank analysts' fear of addressing such a volatile issue. While this is understandable -- especially given that some pro-life advocates have committed violent terrorist acts including clinic bombings and the murder of abortion providers -- such reticence does not offer any solutions.
Even if a think tank wanted to begin research on abortion policy, there are questions about whether funding for such work would be easily available. Think tank officials say that such funding could probably be done only under a broad healthcare research grant, and even then would draw objections.
Tom Miller, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, calls abortion policy research "one of those radioactive items," and Salganicoff notes that think tank analysts may not want to get pegged as being in one camp or another. There is a concern, she says, that the issue is so charged that public policy research experts don't want to touch it.
The lack of policy research echoes the limited medical research in this area. Funding for medical research on abortion pales in comparison to other areas of reproductive health, and to medicine as a whole. Again, according to one analyst at a prominent healthcare policy association, this is due to the politics of the issue.
Healthcare policy analysts say that the abortion research that is conducted is run by groups with clear agendas, and even then it is typically filtered through the broader lens of reproductive health issues like unintended pregnancies or birth control. In fact, says one analyst, those who advocate for access to healthcare or healthcare rights don't usually focus on the abortion issue. The entire so-called reproductive rights movement is essentially separate from the rest of the healthcare policy community, including organizations that pursue traditional healthcare advocacy.
Pro-choice organizations like the Alan Guttmacher Institute tend to look at the extent to existing laws may or may not restrict access to abortion. Although the institute's stated mission is "to protect the reproductive choices of all women in the United States and throughout the world," a top policy official there refused to comment for this story, and a spokesman indicated that the institute's experts couldn't comment on the lack of objective abortion policy research.
All of this has given abortion -- which is, let us not forget, a medical procedure -- an odd quasi-legal, quasi-medical status. If pro-choice advocates like the Guttmacher Institute won't even discuss the lack of policy research on abortion, the question arises of whether there is even room for legitimate policy analysis in the abortion debate.
Cato's Miller noted that the legal milieu in which abortion exists, not to mention the overriding moral context, actually limits the possible impact of serious policy analysis. Analysts, he says, see the issue in a legal context under the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution, "which cuts down on the range of political debate over how you would address it by political means."
He also noted that since abortion is not a significant driver of healthcare industry costs for the private sector or the government (Medicaid does not cover the procedure), it is an issue that can easily be sidestepped.
Another key factor is that the arguments over morality and individual rights that power the abortion debate are not based upon economics or other concerns that usually underlie traditional healthcare policy analysis.
Nevertheless, given that think tanks have not looked closely at the issue, there are several avenues of inquiry that could clarify the terms of the debate and lead to rational policy decisions. For example, questions remain unanswered about whether easier access to abortion will in fact result in significantly greater use of the procedure. In addition, the impact of abortion on the long-term health of women at various socioeconomic levels should be explored, and there should be comparative international studies of abortion use under various legal systems. Research is also needed on the social impact of more restrictive versus and less restrictive abortion policies.
Some think tank officials believe it is ultimately the fear of such a highly charged issue that accounts for the lack of abortion policy analysis by think tanks.
"I think it is stupid for us to be as scared of this as we are," says a top executive at one prominent think tank. "Certainly there are important moral dimensions, but it is an interesting observation that abortion as a healthcare (issue) is avoided in this industry."
Initiating think tank policy research on abortion will not be easy, and it will probably do little to end the violent dispute that shapes abortion policy in this country. But without such efforts policymakers, legislatures and voters will continue to shape abortion policy based on moralizing and political considerations instead of facts.
If they truly believe that solid research and sound data are the foundation of wise policy decisions, then think tanks and health policy analysts must address this issue, so they can inject important information to a significant debate, where it is desperately needed.
(This is the first installment of the UPI Think Tank Observer, a column that will examine issues and trends in the world of think tanks in Washington and elsewhere.)