A promising research tool to better understand women’s experience with abortion

A research method familiar to political scientists may hold new promise for public health researchers studying the prevalence of abortion, according to a new paper co-authored by Bixby Center researcher Dr. Christine Dehlendorf.

People tend to underreport experience with abortion in direct surveys because of stigma surrounding the procedure, legal and privacy concerns. The list experiment method is a measurement tool designed to elicit truthful responses to stigmatized questions. People are given a list of experiences and asked to share how many apply to them, without specifying which ones. A control group responds to a list of experiences, and the treatment group responds to the same list with the addition of the stigmatized experience. For instance, one group’s list asked about their experience with vaccination, using an ambulance and visiting a city clinic, and the treatment group was asked about the same list of experiences with abortion added to the list. The difference between the two groups is an estimate of the population proportion that has experienced abortion.

The first list experiment on abortion in Liberia demonstrated the potential for receiving more truthful responses. The study estimated that 32% of women in Liberia have had an abortion, five times greater than the only previous estimate of abortion in Liberia.

The analyses in this paper should bolster researcher confidence in using the list experiment method to study stigmatized public health topics. There are at least half a dozen other list experiments regarding abortion taking place worldwide. The researchers hope these findings will facilitate more research and expand the tools available to inform smart policy and programs by better understanding women’s experience with abortion.