Last week a Daily Beast article by Kirsten Powers generated some excitement in pro-life circles. The article entitled “Busting the Birth Control Myth” makes the case that Planned Parenthood does not deserve funding from the federal government. Specifically, Powers makes two arguments. First, contrary to the claims of Planned Parenthood, existing research fails to show that greater contraceptive availability will reduce abortion rates. Secondly, even though Planned Parenthood officials state that their goal is to protect women’s health, their tax filings indicate that their mission is to achieve “a U.S. population of stable size.” Powers argues that their dishonesty in how they present themselves to the public renders them unworthy of taxpayer dollars.
Now a number of pro-life researchers, including myself, have been making this case for years. To put it mildly, Planned Parenthood’s claims that publicly funded contraception programs reduce abortion rates are empirically weak. Furthermore, many longtime pro-life activists know that Larry Lader and others involved with Zero Population Growth convinced feminist groups to prioritize abortion in the 1960s. However, what made Powers’s column interesting is the fact she is a Democratic political analyst who worked for the Clinton Administration, the New York State Democratic Committee, and Andrew Cuomo’s campaign for Governor.
However, on Tuesday, Powers issued a retraction. She states that she made a “serious error in reporting this column that undermines the conclusion I drew.” She goes on to say that her argument is “not supported by the data” and that it “invalidates my piece.” Now it is true that Powers made an error. In her column she stated that between 2000 and 2011 Planned Parenthood received millions of dollars in taxpayer funding. However, according to the Guttmacher Institute, the percentage of abortion-minded women who were using contraception remained the same during the time. The percentage of women using contraception the month they became pregnant also remained the same. However, the reason that the numbers remained the same was because the 2011 Guttmacher figures came from Guttmacher’s 2000 report. Powers did not notice this when she first wrote her column.
Powers did make a mistake which she was right to both publicly admit and correct. However, this mistake, by itself, does not invalidate her argument. Even though her comments about trends in contraception use were based on erroneous data, she highlighted other research which seriously questions the ability of contraception funding to lower abortion rates. In fact, a look at the existing research on contraception use and abortion rates indicates that Powers’s argument was stronger than she probably realizes.
In her column, Powers highlights a 2009 study that appeared in the journal Contraception. During a ten-year study of women in Spain, overall contraceptive use increased from 49 percent to 80 percent and the abortion rate more than doubled. This does not necessarily mean that greater access to contraception increases the abortion rate, but this study offers no evidence that contraception use actually lowers the abortion rate. Furthermore, a 2003 Guttmacher Institute study saw that anumber of countries, including the United States, Cuba, Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore, and South Korea saw simultaneous increases in both contraceptive use and abortion rates. Now it is true that the abortion rates in some of these countries declined in the long term. However, in many of these countries the abortion rate remained higher than it was before contraception was widely available.
Additionally, Powers cites a 2011 Guttmacher fact sheet which shows that virtually no women cited lack of access to contraception as their reason for obtaining an abortion. These findings are consistent with other research. Nine years ago the Guttmacher Institute surveyed 10,000 women who had had abortions. Among those not using contraception at the time they conceived, only 12 percent said that they lacked access to contraceptives due to financial or other reasons. Similarly, in their book Unmarried Couples with Children, sociologists Kathryn Edin of Harvard and Paula England of Stanford conducted an intense study of 76 low-income couples who had just given birth. Edin and England found that only a very small percentage of these women wanted contraception but were unable to afford it.
For many years, the mainstream media has subjected Planned Parenthood’s claims about the benefits of federal contraception funding to precious little scrutiny. That is why it was so heartening to see someone not affiliated with the pro-life movement do some research and publicly document the shortcomings in Planned Parenthood’s arguments. Even in light of the error, nearly all the research Powers presented was correct and damaging to Planned Parenthood. And perhaps Powers’ column will encourage others in the mainstream media to subject Planned Parenthood to some much-needed scrutiny.
— Michael New is an Assistant Professor at The University of Alabama and a Fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.