During her testimony before a congressional committee Tuesday, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards called out Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz for displaying a slide that showed a graph created by an anti-abortion group, rather than a neutral source. Richards had good reason to be skeptical of the image, which turns out to be stunningly misleading.
As part of a contentious back-and-forth in which Chaffetz repeatedly cut off Richards, the congressman displayed a slide with a graph that looked like this:
When Richards said she’d never seen it before, Chaffetz replied: “It comes straight from your annual reports.”
Moments later, Richards shot back: “My lawyers just informed me that the source of this information is Americans United for Life, an anti-abortion group. I would check your source.”
But the source wasn’t the only problem. A cursory look at the graph, which comes from an Americans United For Life report about Planned Parenthood centers released in June, makes it seem like in 2006, Planned Parenthood performed far more cancer screening and prevention services than abortions, but that by around 2010 it performed an equal number of both, and by 2013 it performed far more abortion services than anti-cancer services.
The issue is important because as part of their effort to defund Planned Parenthood, Republicans have portrayed it as primarily an abortion provider, while the group's defenders have said it mostly performs other women's health services, like cancer screenings.
But look at the actual numbers in the graph. They show that in 2006, Planned Parenthood performed 2,007,371 anti-cancer services and 289,750 abortions. By 2013, the gap had closed slightly, but the group still performed many more anti-cancer services than abortions, 935,573 to 327,000.
Why does it seem otherwise? Because the “graph” has no y axis, which allows its creators to simply plot the results wherever they choose in order to create a compelling visual effect. That’s how 327,000 is made to look like a much larger number than 935,573.
What the slide actually shows, of course, is that the number of abortions performed by Planned Parenthood rose very modestly between 2006 and 2013, while the number of anti-cancer services it performed did indeed fall by more than half. But Richards said some of the services, like pap smears, dropped in frequency because of changing medical standards about who should be screened and how often. Displaying that information on an actual graph would show the line for abortions rising very slightly over the 7-year time period, and the line for anti-cancer services dropping, but always remaining far above the line for abortions.
Of course, that wouldn’t have made a very striking image for Chaffetz to display for the TV cameras.