Last month the Guttmacher Institute was avidly promoting two studies that calculate the cost of unintended pregnancies. “Unintended Pregnancy and Taxpayer Spending” calculates Medicaid and SCHIP spending on abortions, miscarriages, births, and medical care that result from unintended pregnancies. “The Public Costs of Births Resulting from Unintended Pregnancies” uses state-survey data to gauge the percentage of pregnancies that were unintended and uses those figures to measure how much each state pays for publicly funded births.
What makes this research agenda challenging is that it is difficult to obtain a precise figure for the percentage of pregnancies that are unintended. Furthermore, pregnancies can come with varying levels of “wantedness,” and it may be too simplistic to categorize pregnancies as either “intended” or “unintended.” That said, both studies seem fairly well done. Both conclude that unintended pregnancies cost taxpayers anywhere from $9 billion to $12 billion a year.
However, when analyzing a Guttmacher study, their recommendations are usually more problematic than their methodology. These two studies prove to be no exception. Not surprisingly, the authors call for a greater commitment to comprehensive sex-education programs and more federal funding for contraceptives. However, they provide precious little in the way of documentation that either of these strategies is effective at lowering rates of unintended pregnancies.
The results of another recently released Guttmacher study, “Unintended Pregnancy Rates at the State Level,” should give contraception supporters pause. It reports that the rate of unintended pregnancies fell between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s and then remained steady between 1994 and 2001. However, starting in the mid-1990s, the unintended-pregnancy rate increased among women beneath the poverty line. Furthermore, starting around 2001, the evidence suggests that the overall unintended-pregnancy rate increased.
Interestingly, the last 10 years have seen significant increases in federal spending on both Planned Parenthood and Title X programs. Considering their poor track record, one would at least think that policymakers should consider some other strategies, namely encouraging sexual restraint. Granted, public policy is a clumsy tool to change people’s sexual activity. However, despite ample government funding, neither contraception programs nor comprehensive sex education have shown tangible success at reducing unintended pregnancy rates. In view of this, it is disappointing that strategies for encouraging sexual restraint seldom, if ever, receive thoughtful consideration in the ongoing debate about how to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.