Critical Condition

Contraception and Abortion Rates (Or, A Christianist Responds)

Last week, Andrew Sullivan became the latest in a long line of commentators to criticize the pro-life movement for not being more contraceptive-friendly. He favorably cites the Guttmacher Institute’s recent survey of abortion services worldwide and argues that guaranteeing free contraception as part of a public option would reduce abortions dramatically. However, Sullivan is wrong on two counts. The link between abortion rates and access to contraception is not as clear as the Guttmacher report might indicate. Furthermore, Guttmacher’s own research suggests that there is little reason to believe that contraception subsidies would do much to affect abortion rates.

First, there exists no consensus on the correlation between the availability of contraception and the incidence of abortion. In fact, in 2003, Guttmacher released an article in “International Family Planning Perspectives” that showed simultaneous increases in both contraceptive use and abortion rates in the United States, Cuba, Denmark, Netherlands, Singapore, and South Korea.

The experience of the United States in instructive. The birth-control pill was first approved by the FDA in early 1961 and put on the market later that same year. Guttmacher’s research 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. Furthermore, 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 hasten the liberalization of America’s abortion laws. All of this led to higher abortion rates.

Furthermore, requiring mandatory coverage of contraceptives as part of health reform is unlikely to have much effect on abortion rates. Indeed, 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. Given all the already existing programs, it is by no means clear that there are policy instruments that could increase contraceptive use among this subset of women.

Moreover, guaranteeing contraception coverage as part of the public option would make health-care reform more costly. And contraceptive mandates could infringe upon the conscience rights of health-care professionals who oppose the use of artificial contraception. Social conservatives, as always, would do well to be vigilant.

— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.