In early July, Colorado’s success with free long-acting contraceptives was trumpeted by news media. The New York Times called the results “startling” and “stunning.” “Colorado’s free birth control experiment could change the world,” raved SFGate, a news website.
But the news was not so surprising.
After health authorities provided free contraceptives such as intrauterine devices to low-income girls and women over six years, from 2009 to 2013, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among teenagers dropped by 40 percent. The abortion rate among that group declined by 42 percent, said the Times, using figures from Colorado officials. And they reported similar declines among unmarried women younger than 25 and without high-school diplomas — a group likely to be mired in poverty if they started motherhood too soon.
Aren’t those results exactly what you’d expect when young women are given easy access to a reliable and simple-to-use method of birth control? Isn’t that what advocates of women’s reproductive health have been preaching for decades?
Here’s the surprise: The Colorado state legislature has refused to provide $5 million to renew the program, despite its dramatic results. Apparently, its members were cowed by opposition from the usual coalition of right-wing religious groups, such as Colorado Family Action. (The initial funding was provided by an anonymous donor.)
“We believe that offering contraceptives to teens, especially long-acting reversible contraceptives, while it may prevent pregnancy, does not help them understand the risks that come with sexual activities. We should not remove parents from the equation,” Colorado Family Action said in a statement.
Allow me to interpret the statement from CFA: If teenage girls have sex, we want them to get pregnant and suffer for it. This sort of political falderal makes me want to bang my head on my desk. If we want to reduce unintended pregnancies — which leads, of course, to a reduction in abortion rates — we know how to do it: Provide free contraception, preferably long-acting and reversible methods such as IUDs. Yet, the very right-wingers who denounce abortion rights refuse to support widespread contraceptive use.
While the figures from Colorado are dramatic, rates of teen pregnancy have been falling for decades. The teen pregnancy rate in the United States reached its peak in 1990 and has been dropping since then.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit that works to advance reproductive health, the decline, at least since 2003, has “little or nothing to do with teens’ delaying sex. … Instead, the decline in teen pregnancy in recent years can be linked to improvements in teens’ contraceptive use.”
In the late 1990s, reproductive experts started to notice that unintended pregnancies had dropped, especially among teenagers, as they began using long-acting birth control methods such as Norplant, which was implanted under the skin, and Depo-Provera, administered through injection. The advantage lies in ease of use: Women don’t have to remember to take a daily pill.
Still, even with the successes of recent decades, the United States has a higher rate of unintended pregnancies — more than half are unplanned — than virtually any other industrialized country. And 40 percent of those end in abortion, according to Guttmacher researchers.
Cultural and religious conservatives insist that teaching teens to abstain from sexual activity is the answer. But the states most likely to insist on that approach — my home state of Alabama is one — have the highest rates of teen pregnancy. Alabama has the 15th-highest rate of teen pregnancy, according to federal statistics. Mississippi, equally conservative and even poorer, has the second.
If you still don’t believe it, take a look at Bristol Palin, daughter of Tea Party darling Sarah Palin. Once a spokesperson for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, she pledged after her first child not to have sex again until she married. She is now pregnant with her second child as a single mother.
The facts are staring us in the face: We know how to prevent unplanned pregnancies and the poverty they so often drag in their wake. We know how to dramatically reduce the rate of abortions. It’s simply crazy that we refuse to do what works.
Copyright 2015 Cynthia Tucker
Photo: +mara via Flickr