The contraception connection

Want fewer abortions? Then offer reliable, inexpensive birth control options, already.


Page Rockwell
May 5, 2006 2:26AM (UTC)

The current crackdown on contraception and rise in deep-in-denial abstinence-only education don't just boost the U.S. abortion rate. According to a report (PDF) released today by the very great Guttmacher Institute, the anti-contraception crusade particularly contributes to the rise in unplanned pregnancies (and thus, abortions) among poor women.

It makes sense: As federal and state funding for family-planning services declines, women without health insurance are less likely to have access to contraceptives. (Even women with health insurance have no guarantee that their contraceptives will be covered in many states.) Since "poor women are twice as likely as women overall to lack health insurance," the Guttmacher folks report, they're also more likely to lack reliable access to contraception.

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The result? "Between 1994 and 2001, the rate of unintended pregnancy increased by 29 percent among U.S. women whose income was below the poverty line, while it decreased 20 percent among women with incomes at least twice the federal poverty level," a Guttmacher press release summarizes. The kicker, as reader Chris M. pointed out on Wednesday, is that the GOP campaign to strip away the country's social safety net contributes to the poverty rate, which in turn contributes to the abortion rate: "Republicans cause abortions by causing pregnancies (fighting contraception) and making those pregnancies unwanted (making it economically impossible to support children)."

It gets no better from there. If you're a poor and uninsured woman facing an unplanned pregnancy, you're also less likely to have the money for or access to speedy abortion services. And, our Guttmacher friends continue, policymakers' "punitive approach" to unplanned pregnancy -- restricting access to abortion services -- tends to result in later abortions, not fewer abortions: "With the exception of the ban on federal funding for abortion services for poor women, restrictions such as waiting periods and parental consent or notifications laws have not been found to have a significant impact on the number of abortions. What is clear is that such restrictions force women seeking abortion, especially those who are most vulnerable, to have them later in pregnancy, when they are riskier. Lower-income women take up to three weeks longer than better-off women to obtain an abortion." All of which makes the effort to demonize -- and criminalize -- late-term abortions especially classist and rationally inconsistent.

And in addition to being a problem for poor women, the dearth of comprehensive sex-ed, contraception and abortion services is leaving teenagers high and dry (especially, as you may have guessed, teenagers from low-income families and young women of color). According to a study by the National Campaign to Prevent Pregnancy, rates of teen sex and teen pregnancy seem to be on the decline overall, but one in three of girls who are sexually active will get pregnant. It's a scary possible outgrowth of the abstinence-only movement, underscoring the much aforementioned point that one-size-fits-all, no-sex education won't reach all teenagers. The campaign reports that about 29 percent of teens who become pregnant get abortions, while 57 percent carry to term and 14 percent suffer miscarriages (though, frankly, none of these options seems particularly ideal).

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The Guttmacher Institute describes the discrepant trends for women of different socioeconomic brackets as "a tale of two Americas for women." And its report pinpoints the nightmarish disconnect between pregnancy and abortion in the U.S. much better than I could. "Too often in public discourse, abortion is talked about in isolation from its precipitating event, unplanned pregnancy," the report says. "And as a political matter, it is too often treated as if it were the centerpiece of women's reproductive behavior rather than a last resort, when other options fail." The Bush administration and other enemies of reproductive choice need to take their heads out of the sand and recognize that contraception and emergency contraception are part of the solution, or concede that their actual agenda is revoking women's ownership of their bodies entirely.


Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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