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Contraceptive Availability May Not Decrease Abortions


Fred Schwarz does a nice job summarizing Jillian Melchior’s argument for greater availability of oral contraceptives. Allowing women to purchase oral contraceptives over the counter may increase the likelihood that women use contraception. It may also increase the reliability of contraception that women use. Fair enough.

However, Schwarz and Melchior fail to realize that greater availability of contraceptives may also change individual incentives in ways that will make abortions more likely. For instance greater availability of oral contraceptives may increase the number of sexually active women. Melchior does not specifically mention age limits in her article. However, the FDA decided to allow females as young as 15 to purchase emergency contraception without a prescription. This is still an age when a significant percentage of girls are not sexually active.

Second, because of risk compensation — which means that those with access to contraception will engage in sexual activity more often — increased access to contraceptives often fails to reduce the unintended-pregnancy rate. Risk compensation is getting more attention in the academic literature which analyzes contraceptive programs. Book’s such as Ed Green’s Broken Promise, which analyzes the AIDS epidemic in Africa, find that many contraceptive programs were counterproductive, in part, because of risk compensation.

The link between contraception use and abortion rates is by no means clear. A 2003 Guttmacher Institute study analyzed data from foreign countries. It found a number of countries, including the United States, Cuba, Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore, and South Korea actually experienced 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—including, again, the United States—the abortion rate remained higher than it was before contraception was widely available.

As always, pro-lifers would do well to be skeptical of the claims made by proponents of contraception.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan — Dearborn, a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute, and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New


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