Critiquing the Latest Guttmacher Study

by Michael J. New

This Thursday, NPR’s health-policy blog, Shots, posted a sympathetic article about a recent Guttmacher Institute study that analyzed the costs of unintended pregnancies. This study, which makes use of both aggregate and survey-level data, finds that births due to unintended pregnancies cost taxpayers approximately $11 billion in 2006. These costs are split between federal and state governments, largely through the S-CHIP and Medicaid programs. According to the study, the percentage of births paid for by Medicaid and S-CHIP increased from 15 percent to 48 percent between 1985 and 2006.

Not surprisingly, the folks at NPR subject this research to precious little scrutiny. In fact, they are generous with praise stating that this study “is sure to raise some eyebrows in the anti-abortion community.” Furthermore, they make the bizarre statement that “both sides of the heated abortion issue generally trust and cite Guttmacher’s research.” One seriously wonders if NPR reporters ever speak to pro-life professionals. Guttmacher does have some scholars who conduct rigorous research on reproductive-health issues. However, many of their in-house publications are often little more than advocacy pieces calling for more public funding for contraception.

In fairness, this particular article does offer some interesting, thorough, and original research on how unintended pregnancies result in additional government spending. Of course it comes with a side dish of pro-contraception bias. It claims that the $2 billion that is spent on publicly funded contraception programs saves taxpayers $7 billion annually. However, it draws this conclusion from another Guttmacher analysis, which automatically assumes that more contraception spending will automatically lead to more clients, more contraceptive usage, and fewer unintended pregnancies. This particular analysis fails to analyze actual data on how contraceptive spending affects pregnancy rates.

This recent Guttmacher study also offers substantial praise for Obamacare. Specifically it praises “the new authority to states to expand Medicaid eligibility for family planning services” and “the possibility of required private insurance coverage of contraceptive services.” However, it is unlikely that Obamacare will do much reduce the unintended pregnancy rate. After all, Guttmacher’s own survey of sexually active women who were not using contraception found that only 12 percent said that they lacked access to contraceptives due to financial or other reasons. Of course, there exist other strategies to reduce the unintended pregnancy rate, namely greater sexual restraint. However, these ideas barely receive a mention in  Guttmacher publications.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.

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