Doubts About Contraception’s Effect on Abortion Rates: Responding to Critics

by Michael J. New

My blogposts on the declining abortion rate received a fair amount of attention last week. I made the case that pro-life laws, shifts in public opinion, and reductions in teen sexual activity are playing a role in reducing America’s abortion rate. Conversely, I remain skeptical that increases in contraception use are contributing much to America’s abortion decline. The responses to my posts were interesting. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones basically threw his arms in the air. Sarah McDonough of Salon called me “delusional” without bothering to present any actual arguments or data.

In response, I asked my critics a simple question. If contraceptives are effective and contraceptive use has been increasing consistently over time, why has the unintended pregnancy rate increased since the mid 1990s? In a blogpost which appeared on, pro-choice writer Robin Marty agrees to take up the challenge. To Marty’s credit, she does not engage in name-calling and even gallantly acknowledges that I am “not delusional.”

That said, Marty’s response is not particularly compelling. She states that the unintended-pregnancy rate is increasing in part because political efforts are preventing consistent contraception use. She also cites Republican efforts to prevent insurers from covering contraception and to defund family-planning providers.

Unfortunately, the facts lend little support to her argument. Since the late 1990s, 28 states have actually mandated that health insurers include contraception in their plans — so contraception should be more available. Furthermore, I am skeptical that efforts to defund Planned Parenthood will increase the unintended-pregnancy rate. These political efforts are also relatively recent and cannot explain gains in the unintended-pregnancy rate that date back to the mid 1990s.

Marty appears to misunderstand some of the arguments I am making. She claims that I credit abstinence-only sex education for the decline in the abortion rate — which I never did. I just pointed out that multiple surveys have shown that teen sexual activity has been decreasing since the early 1990s. Later in her post, she sarcastically suggests that “abstinence only education” might be the reason why the “teen birth rate is at a historic low”. In reality, academic studies have found that reductions in teen sexual activity have played a role in the decline in the teen-pregnancy rate. I will not call Marty “delusional,” but it’s puzzling that she and other pro-choice writers are unwilling to acknowledge this.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and an adjunct scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on twitter @Michael_J_New