Holy Smokes. Wow. OMG.

So, the Catholic Right has been getting its bell rung over the Guttmacher Institute’s latest report on the abortion rate, which has fallen to its lowest level since Roe v. Wade. If you’ve been paying attention, these numbers don’t surprise you—abortion rates have been dropping for decades now. And you also know (because, duh) that this drop has come as contraception has become more accessible, widely-used, and effective. What’s less duh is that, in general, people haven’t been taking the availability of birth control as a cue to have rampant unmarried sex—in fact, rates of sexual activity are falling among young people, and rates of premarital sex in general  haven’t changed substantially since the 1970s.

And if you’ve been paying attention you know that that puts the Catholic Right into a bind, since they’ve insisted for fifty years that artificial birth control leads inexorably to bothabortion and sexual immorality. Which is why, as lots of commentators have noticed, they seem so grumpy over the Guttmacher numbers.

Today, this post appeared at catholicvote.org.

In it, Michael J. New reports on (but doesn’t link to) this study by Emily Gray Collins and Brad Hershbein on “The Impact of Subsidized Birth Control for College Women.” As New reports, the authors studied what happened when, in 2007, the cost of birth control pills dramatically and unexpectedly increased (by upwards of 300%) at college health centers.

New’s analysis of the study is, um, breathtaking. For several reasons.

1) First, there’s its timing. This study was first made available in 2011, and was widely discussed during the Sandra Fluke controversy in 2012. Here’s William Saletan’s writeup on it at slate.com, and here’s an article on it at Inside Higher Ed.

The study’s appearance at catholicvote.org this week is clearly intended to rebuff critics of the Church’s anti-abortion/anti-contraception stance. New concludes, “Mainstream media pundits who complain pro-lifers need to become more contraception friendly should take a closer look at this and other studies.”

[Note: if New wants us to “take a closer look” at the study, a link would be nice. I think, for reasons outlined below, he might actually not want us to look at it too closely.]

2) Then, there’s New’s interpretation of the study. If you click on that Inside Higher Ed link above, you’ll see a very different reading of the findings. There, author Allie Grasgreen writes: “When birth control isn’t covered under a female student’s insurance policy, she is slightly less likely to have sex, but is – in some cases — significantly more likely to use less reliable contraception methods.”

New is right: the study did find that, when the price of birth control pills tripled(!), some women did report having less sex and fewer partners during the time period studied. But, unbelievably, he leaves out the researchers’ main finding: “Women who lack insurance and have sex infrequently appear to substitute toward emergency contraception; uninsured women who are frequent sex participants appear to substitute toward non-prescription forms of birth control.”

Read that again. Women who have frequent sex tend to substitute non-prescription (read: less effective) forms of birth control. That’s bad enough. But then: women who have less frequent sex tend to substitute emergency contraception.

Again: emergency contraception.

Now, you and I know that emergency contraception is not abortion. But the folks at catholicvote.org do not.

So New is touting a study that suggests that taking away women’s birth control leads to what many on the Catholic Right believe is abortion.

I wonder why he didn’t say that in his title? “Study Shows That Access to Cheap and Easy Contraception Prevents Abortion on College Campuses”?

It’s a mystery, I guess.

There are more problems with his post, too. He says, “The fact that easy access to contraceptives increases the amount of sexual activity explains why programs to distribute or subsidize contraceptives often fail to reduce the unintended pregnancy rate.” But he doesn’t list any of those programs or demonstrate their failures. Readers, if you know what programs he means, please let me know. I’d love to see some data. The most recent study of subsidized contraception that I’m aware of showed (duh) a dramatic decrease in abortions and birthrate. 

Immediately after that sentence, he cites a 1996 paper by George Akerloff and Janet Yellen which, he says, “showed that easy access to oral contraception increased the amount of sexual activity – and might have resulted in increases in both the unintended pregnancy rate and the out-of-wedlock birth rate.”

It’s important to note though, that 1) that paper is nearly 20 years old and 2) it doesn’t deal with any specific programs but instead refers to the general “technological shock” of going almost overnight from a world where birth control and abortion were hard to find and expensive to one where they are easy to obtain. Akerloff and Yellen do argue that this shock led to increased out-of-wedlock births, but New ignores both their conclusions and their policy recommendations. They conclude that “[w]ith sexual abstinence rare and the stigma of out-of-wedlock motherhood small, denying women access to abortion and contraception would only increase the number of children born out-of-wedlock and reared in impoverished single-parent families.”

And their recommendations?  They write: “Easier access to birth control information and devices, before sexual participation, and easier access to abortion, in the event of pregnancy, could reduce both the number of unwanted children and improve the timing of those whose mothers would have preferred to wait.”

Finally, rather than focusing on abortion rates, New chooses to base his argument on a less meaningful statistic, the rate of unintended pregnancies. As a percentage of births, he observes, unintended pregnancies do not seem to have declined much in recent decades. But that’s a poor measure of the the effectiveness of contraception (which is how New is using it) since it doesn’t factor in the pregnancies prevented by contraception, which are impossible to tally.* Think of it this way: if the birthrate is down, and the abortion rate is down, then those are pretty incontrovertible signs that fewer people are getting pregnant unintentionally.**

Amanda Marcotte points that out here. She also writes that “the anti-choice movement is about punishing sex, not saving life.” I think that New and the folks at catholicvote.org are just scouring the databases for anything that can answer the bad press the anti-contraception right is getting right now. But by trumpeting a study that suggests that birth control prevents (what in their minds is) abortion as a reason to oppose birth control, they make Marcotte’s point for her.


*Let me illustrate this with a quick exercise. Say one year you have 100 women, of whom 50 are trying to get pregnant and 50 are using birth control. Now say that 25 of the birth control group get pregnant. You could then say that 1 out 3 (25/75) pregnancies was unintentional, and that the birth control wasn’t very effective.

Now say that the next year, only two women are trying to get pregnant, and 98 are using birth control. One of those 98 in the birth control group gets pregnant. You’d still have an unintentional pregnancy rate of 1/3. But, obviously, the birth control was much more effective at preventing unintentional pregnancies in year 2, since it worked in 97 of 98 cases.

**As always, correlation doesn’t prove causation. But these two things are true: the number of unintentional pregnancies is down, and contraception is more widely-used and effective than before.


6 thoughts on “Holy Smokes. Wow. OMG.

  1. If availability of contraceptives made people have more sex you wouldn’t expect a big change since the 70s since contraceptives were plenty available then. You’d expect a big change since before the 50s maybe since that’s when the pill really took off. I think in that sense such a change was witnessed.

    However if promiscuity is more related to cultural factors than specifically the ability to prevent pregnancy you might expect a very different pattern of change. I know that in the 1600s in Britain there were remarkably low levels of illegitimacy despite having marriage ages strikingly similar to the modern era (men and women often waited even as late as their early thirties to marry because British culture expected a man to be able to afford to set up a household before marrying – very different to some cultures where the woman moves in with the family of her husband and contributes to the family labour pool in which women tended to marry much younger). Clearly there was a time where either consequences or cultural beliefs did prevent widespread promiscuity.

    • Thanks for reading, msharmila!

      You said, “I think in that sense such a change was witnessed.”

      I’m looking at the trend line. If availability of contraceptives made people have more sex, you wouldn’t expect a decline in teen sex or premarital sex over the past twenty years. Even if you argue that contraception’s availability hasn’t changed since the 1970s (I disagree, obviously), the recent and continuing drop remains to be explained.

      I think there has been a cultural change since the late 1980s that has been largely overlooked.

      I’d love to read more about British illegitimacy rates in the seventeenth century. Can you point me to where you’re getting that info?

      Thanks again,

      • I took a history course where it was talked about. Honestly I wish I’d been interested enough to remember the names of the researchers. They basically showed that Malthus was wrong, people didn’t just die when times got hard, they waited longer to get married (because they took longer to have enough resources to build a household) and the birth rate dropped significantly and this prevented a cycle of massive mortality interspaced by population explosion.

        I really wish I could remember the name of the guys who showed it. I am pretty sure they were historians from Cambridge if you are interested enough to try and hunt them down. I also remember being told it was one of the first really “scientific” (I am guessing in the sense of highly mathematical rather than genuinely scientific which I cannot see how history could be) approaches taken to history – but maybe that was in a different lesson about something else so don’t take my word for it.

        Anyway, humans are pretty complex and reactive, it would be nice if only one thing influenced peoples behaviour at a time so we could see what and why easily, but alas no 😛

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