New Study Wildly Overstates Benefits of Contraception

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Michael J. New is a Visiting Associate Professor at Ave Maria University, Ave Maria, Florida.

As congressional efforts to defund Planned Parenthood gain momentum, it is unsurprising that the abortion provider is fighting back. The group recently funded a study — carried out by the liberal think tank Child Trends — which makes some outlandish claims about the purported health benefits of contraception.

The study claims that if all women of childbearing age could access a complete range of contraception methods, both the unintended-pregnancy rate and the abortion rate would fall by more than 60 percent, saving Americans over $12 billion a year. This study has already received uncritical coverage from a number of mainstream media outlets including Time, Yahoo Health, and Mic.com

It should come as no surprise that this study has number of methodological problems. The authors extrapolate from a 2015 study in which 20 Planned Parenthood clinics across the United States improved their counseling and offered women access to a wider range of contraceptive methods. Women who went to these Planned Parenthood clinics were likely to switch away from condoms in favor of more reliable forms of contraceptives, including the birth control pill and Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives (LARCs). The authors of this 2015 study found some short-term evidence that women who sought contraception at these Planned Parenthood clinics had lower unintended-pregnancy rates than women in a control group.

However, the authors of the new Child Trends study simply assume that the greater use of more reliable contraceptives will automatically reduce the unintended-pregnancy rate. They overlook the possibility that many women who use contraceptives do not do so consistently. They also fail to consider the way in which access to more reliable forms of contraceptives might affect the frequency of sexual activity. Finally, they ignore the fact that LARCs — which are thought to be the most reliable form of contraception — have a high discontinuance rate.

More importantly, the ability of any public-policy intervention to increase contraception use is limited at best. The Guttmacher Institute's own research shows that a very small percentage of sexually active women forgo contraception due either to cost or lack of availability. Research on teenagers from the Centers for Disease Control arrives at a similar conclusion. Furthermore, there is a broad body of academic research showing that efforts to increase contraception use through legalization, subsidies, or distribution tend to be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

The trends in the United States are instructive. By many measures, contraceptive use has increased since the early 1980s. However, the unintended-pregnancy rate today is almost exactly where it was in 1981. The 50 percent reduction in the U.S. abortion rate since 1980 is not due to contraception. It is due to the fact that a higher percentage of women with unintended pregnancies are carrying them to term. Guttmacher statistics show that almost 54 percent of unintended pregnancies were aborted in 1981; that percentage fell to 40 percent by 2008.

It is interesting that Planned Parenthood commissioned Child Trends to carry out this study. After all, Planned Parenthood has plenty of allies in the public-health research world. In fact, the Guttmacher Institute was Planned Parenthood's official research arm until 2007 and still occasionally receives funding from the abortion group. The possibility that Guttmacher might have declined to carry out such an analysis suggests that even an aggressively pro-contraception think tank would rightfully be wary of these outlandish claims.

Originally posted at nationalreview.com.

Michael J. New is a Visiting Associate Professor at Ave Maria University and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New