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Tracking the Times on Contraception


Last week Public Discourse posted an excellent article by Susan Wills of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops responding to the recent New York Times op-ed by Nicholas Kristof, who, like countless other mainstream media pundits, claims that increased access to contraception at home and abroad would solve overpopulation, climate change, poverty, and countless other societal ills. In her response Wills nicely demonstrates that 1) world population growth is primarily caused by longer lifespans, not higher birthrates, 2) wider access to contraception will not necessarily lower the rate of unintended pregnancies, and 3) hormonal contraceptives pose serious health risks to women.

Wills’s arguments about the inability of contraceptives to lower birthrates are probably stronger than she realizes. For instance, in 1999, the British government launched its Teenage Pregnancy Strategy program, the goal of which was to cut the number of teen pregnancies in half by promoting comprehensive sexual education and birth control. Since then, some £300 million ($454 million in U.S. dollars) has been spent on this initiative. Unfortunately, the British teen-abortion rate has climbed steadily. In fact, in 2009, the London Daily Mail reported that teen-pregnancy rates in England are now higher than they were in 1995 and pregnancies among girls under 16 (below the age of sexual consent) are also at the highest level since 1998.

The experience of the United States is also instructive. The birth-control pill was first approved by the FDA in early 1961 and put on the market later that same year. Guttmacher Institute researchers found that women who turned 15 between the mid-1960s and early 1970s were more likely to engage in sexual activity at a younger age than their counterparts who turned 15 before the early 1960s. Guttmacher partly attributes this increased sexual activity to the availability of the birth-control pill. Overall, the birth-control pill led to more sexual activity and shifted the culture in such a way as to increase the number of unintended pregnancies.

And it is unlikely that government programs to increase the availability of contraception would lower unintended pregnancy rates. Guttmacher’s own research indicates that few women forgo contraception because of either cost or lack of availability. Eight years ago, Guttmacher surveyed 10,000 women who had abortions. Among those who were not using contraception at the time they conceived, 2 percent said that they did not know where to obtain a method of contraception and 8 percent said that they could not afford contraceptives.

In the book Unmarried Couples with Children, sociologists Kathryn Edin of Harvard and Paula England of Stanford conducted an intense study of 76 low-income couples from Milwaukee, Chicago, and New York who had just given birth. Some of these couples were married, but most were not. The fertility patterns of all of the women in the survey were carefully studied for four years. Edin and England asked all of the women surveyed whether they had ever been in a situation where they wanted birth control but could not afford or find it. Tellingly, all said no. In fact, according to Eden and England “some laughed when we asked this question, pointing out how hard clinics and school in their communities push contraceptives.”

Kristof appeals to evangelicals by citing Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, who supports family planning, and ends his column by gleefully touting the tired slogan “Contraceptives no more cause sex than umbrellas cause rain.” The line is flat-out wrong. There is plenty of evidence that the widespread availability of contraceptives has made cultures at home and abroad more promiscuous and less chaste. The contraceptive culture has already exacerbated many of the problems that Kristof intends to solve.

— Michael New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.


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