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May 13, 2013


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Alta Charo

This promises to be a very interesting event, but in the promotion I would beg that the icon of a cocaine addict who has two abortions be changed. It unintentionally furthers the widespread misperception that abortion is a phenomenon of the addicted or irresponsible. But consider these facts about abortion:


• Non-Hispanic white women account for 36% of abortions, non-Hispanic black women for 30%, Hispanic women for 25% and women of other races for 9%.

• Thirty-seven percent of women obtaining abortions identify as Protestant and 28% as Catholic.

• About 61% of abortions are obtained by women who have one or more children.

• The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.

Jones RK, Finer LB and Singh S, Characteristics of U.S. Abortion Patients, 2008, New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2010.

Finer LB et al., Reasons U.S. women have abortions: quantitative and qualitative perspectives, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2005, 37(3):110–118.

See generally:

Michelle Meyer

Hi Alta,

Thanks for your comment, and I've made the change you suggest. Let me explain where I was coming from, though. The examples in the graphic, which I created, are meant to be taken from actual re-identification demos, and are cherry-picked by re-identification demonstration researchers to show just how extremely sensitive the information at issue can be. So the figures above aren't meant to be representative of any group. The figure, above, who searched for "beauty and the beast disney porn" is an actual search term from infamous AOL User 927 (who as far as I know hasn't been re-identified), but easily might have been. The "loves Ishtar" is my attempt at humorously referencing the Netflix prize dataset demonstration. Since the PGP demo "re-identified" some who had uploaded their 23andMe data, and since 23andMe returns ApoE genotyping, I included someone who had two copies of ApoE4 (though I don't know whether Sweeney in fact discovered anyone with any copies of ApoE4). And of course, we've had other genetic re-identification demonstrations.

Now to what you're concerned about. The abortion, cocaine and childhood abuse phenotypes were all taken from actual PGP participant profiles that Sweeney re-identified (though I mistakenly recalled sexual rather than physical abuse--now corrected). In her PGP demo paper, Sweeney notes just three PGP profiles of the many she re-identified that are particularly sensitive. What I'll call Participant 1 had one or more abortions and reported "marijuana intoxication," depression, panic disorder, and postpartum blues (among other things). Participant 2 reported "cocaine intoxication," "marijuana intoxication," childhood physical abuse, and liposuction (among other things). Participant 3 reported childhood physical abuse, "cocaine intoxication," depression, and bi-polar (among other things). (By the way, a reporter replicated Sweeney's results and contacted all three participants, who, as I understand it, agreed to be named by the reporter, or I wouldn't be calling attention to these profiles here, even though they are already part of the public record via Sweeney's paper.) So in these admittedly cherry-picked cases of re-identification, it turns out that single individuals often are linked to more than one (potentially) sensitive datum. It would have been more accurate to have shown a figure who had had an abortion and then went on to suffer from depression, post-partum blues, and panic disorder -- but I suspect that would have played into equally fraught perceptions about abortion and regret. In any case, to avoid all such objections, I've simply disaggregated all of the phenotypes.

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