Teens not the only ones who need birth control info

A new study finds that unintended pregnanicies are rising among low-income women.

Published June 26, 2006 3:25PM (EDT)

The Los Angeles Times has a must-read article today examining why poor and uneducated women have higher rates of unplanned pregnancies. While the overall rate of unintended pregnancies held steady throughout the 1990s, a new study by the Guttmacher Institute found that the rate among poor women jumped almost 30 percent, while during the same period, the number of unintended pregnancies among teens, college graduates and middle- and upperclass women plummeted.

While it might seem like a no-brainer that women with more education and financial resources are less likely to get pregnant, the article shows that broader access to affordable birth control doesn't necessarily stem the rise in unintended pregnancies among the poor.

"California spends $124 on family planning for every woman in need, more than any other state except South Carolina and Alabama," explains Stephanie Simon. "The state's Family PACT program offers teens and low-income couples easy access to free or affordable birth control. Yet California has one of the highest abortion rates in the country -- the same rate as Nevada, which spends only $32 per woman in need." Simon also cites the case of Nebraska, which Guttmacher has identified as having one of the worst records of providing birth control services to low-income women, yet has one of the lowest abortion rates in the country.

Simon quotes experts like former Surgeon General David Satcher, who says that unintended pregnancies won't be eradicated simply by throwing free birth control at the problem. He says health advocates need to "get beyond sex" and develop a more holistic approach to preventing pregnancy. "You have to dig deep and look at what's happening in their lives, their relationships and their minds," he told the Times. Other experts say that many women who have access to birth control are, for a variety of reasons, simply ambivalent about using it, or don't use it correctly or consistently.

For example, Simon visits a Planned Parenthood-sponsored sex education class in East L.A. that provides basic birth control information to low-income Latina mothers in their 30s and 40s, many of whom are married and yet are still unsure how to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy. While this kind of program will help make a dent in the problem, more services for older women are needed. Even though women age 20 and up account for nearly 80 percent of all unintended pregnancies, most organizations focus their efforts on teens. Of Planned Parenthood's $49 million education budget, for example, only 30 percent is earmarked for women 20 and older. And as we know, the federal government isn't picking up the slack, choosing to focus its sex education efforts -- if you can call abstinence-only fear mongering "education" -- on teens as well.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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