In countries where abortion is legally restricted or clandestine, estimates of abortion incidence are needed in order to bring attention to the reality of this practice. Innovations in methods for estimating stigmatized behaviors, coupled with changes in the conditions under which women obtain abortions, prompt us to review new approaches to estimating abortion incidence and propose innovations in this field.
We discuss five approaches for yielding accurate estimates in countries with restrictive abortion laws. These include two prevailing approaches in the field (direct questioning of women about their abortions and the Abortion Incidence Complications Method (AICM)), one that has begun to be in use in recent years (the List Experiment) and two that are newly proposed by the authors (the Confidante Approach and a modification of the AICM). We discuss assumptions, strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Finally, we suggest strategies for assessing the validity of the findings in the absence of a gold standard.
Though direct questioning has consistently been shown to miss many abortions, reporting can potentially be improved by normalizing or reframing the experience of abortion. The AICM has had the advantage of not relying on women’s reports about their abortions; however as self-induced abortion becomes more common, this strength becomes a weakness. The modified AICM, which uses women’s abortion reports to estimate the proportion of abortions that lead to treated complications, improves our chances of capturing self-induced abortions. The List Experiment preserves the woman’s anonymity (not just her confidentiality), but it can be cognitively challenging and the potential to make subgroup estimates is extremely limited. The Confidante Approach entails asking survey respondents about abortions among women who confide in them, rather than their own abortions. An adjustment factor can be applied to estimate the incidence of confidantes’ abortions that are unknown to respondents. This approach relies on the assumption that women know and will report whether their confidantes had an abortion.
In the absence of a gold standard measure of abortion incidence, four strategies can be employed to compare and assess these approaches: (a) comparing the level of underreporting across methods susceptible to underreporting but not to overreporting, (2) validating components of abortion estimates against an objective measure, (3) testing whether these strategies accurately estimate other sensitive behaviors for which a gold standard exists, and 4) sensitivity analyses. Ultimately, it might be appropriate to employ more than one methodology when measuring abortion incidence.