Posted by: Chris | January 23, 2013

The Geography of Abortion

The Daily Beast has an article commemorating the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade that opens with this interesting observation:

To understand more fully the complex state of access to abortion services in America, The Daily Beast identified and confirmed the location of the country’s remaining 724 clinics and calculated the distance from every part of the country to its closest clinic. We compiled our list using data available from abortion advocacy groups and anti-abortion-rights sources, and then we called each clinic to verify their information to create as comprehensive a list as possible. We also took care to obscure exact address data. Here is some of what we found:

The Panhandle-Dakotas Divide

The clearest trend on the map is the dearth of clinics through the center of the country—from northern Texas through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and North Dakota. Roughly 400,000 women of reproductive age (between 15 and 44) live more than 150 miles from the closest clinic in this region. The county farthest away from an abortion clinic is Divide, N.D. All of these states except Wyoming require 24-hour waiting periods between the time a woman schedules an abortion and the procedure.

Often, the states with the fewest clinics also have more restrictions. These are six of the many states that recently curtailed access to medical abortion—also known as the abortion pill—by banning telemedicine, a method doctors use to prescribe medication to terminate a pregnancy over a video chat, a convenience to people who live in rural areas.

The piece was accompanied with this map, demonstrating the middle American abortion desert:


Which is strikingly similar to this map of the US:


Except the second map doesn’t represent the density of abortion clinics or Emily’s List donors, but McDonald’s franchises.  Despite this, the resemblance is clear.  For instance, the greatest abortion clinic and McDonald’s lacunae both overlap out in western North Dakota:

FOR MAXIMUM MCSPARSENESS, we look westward, towards the deepest, darkest holes in our map: the barren deserts of central Nevada, the arid hills of southeastern Oregon, the rugged wilderness of Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains, and the conspicuous well of blackness on the high plains of northwestern South Dakota. There, in a patch of rolling grassland, loosely hemmed in by Bismarck, Dickinson, Pierre, and the greater Rapid City-Spearfish-Sturgis metropolitan area, we find our answer.

Between the tiny Dakotan hamlets of Meadow and Glad Valley lies the McFarthest Spot: 107 miles distant from the nearest McDonald’s, as the crow flies, and 145 miles by car!

Suffer a Big Mac Attack out there, and you’re hurtin’ for certain! For a coupla hours, at least, unless graced by the tender blessings of “manna from heaven” – that is, a fast food air drop from the Medi-Copter.

The similarity stems not from any connection between McDonald’s and Planned Parenthood’s clientele nor because abortion restrictions cause people to eat healthy, but because both maps are simply reflections of population density.  North Dakotans have to drive far to fill their stomachs and empty their uteri because few people live in that part of the country (for a variety of reasons) and both locations tend to locate themselves where people cluster (for a variety of reasons).  So the causal argument that the Beast put forward, about abortion restrictions discouraging abortion clinics is interesting but baseless.  What they actually observed is that sparsely populated states tend to vote Republican (for a variety of reasons) and thus tend to have more abortion restrictions and fewer clinics (for a variety of unrelated reasons).

Correlation does not equal causation.




  2. Yep. Like most smart things one can say about internet/stats, xkcd said it first and better. I wonder when we will reach the critical point when all statistics lectures reduce to slides of xkcd comics

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