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Does Contraception Really Prevent Abortions?


Amidst the heat of the debate over taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion provider, comes a claim from politicians and pundits that the contraceptives Planned Parenthood distributes prevent abortions. As the debate has intensified following the initial defeat of the bill on Monday, this claim lingers as one that has yet to be addressed adequately. We should focus on it a bit, as it is the rationale for hundreds of millions of dollars in spending annually.

One Senator stated the logic succinctly: “I will continue to support…funds that go to Planned Parenthood, because these programs reduce unintended pregnancies and, as a result, reduce the number of abortions.” Dana Milbank of the Washington post makes the same claim, but more colorfully: “[A]ntiabortion forces, in their zeal to slay their bête noire, are actually attempting something sure to increase the number of abortions: Denying women access to birth control.”

Both of these comments assume several things. First, the Senator’s comments belie the provisions of the bill to defund Planned Parenthood that channel funds for healthcare through other entities. Mr. Milbank, for his part, denies that this will work. This is unlikely, as journalists like Sean Davis and others have pointed out, given the number of community health centers throughout the country. But if such care is truly at risk, one wonders why Planned Parenthood just doesn’t swear off abortion and tissue “donation” to focus on providing this critical care.

These claims also assume that a certain percentage of women who become pregnant unexpectedly will seek abortion. While this is true, it is also true that it is possible to influence the percentage of women who turn to abortion. Indeed, in recent years this number has actually dropped from 47% to 40%. It’s not clear why these numbers have changed, but espousing pro-life sentiments among young people and increasing the prevalence of pregnancy resource centers are certainly among the factors. More study here would be useful, as would more support for pregnancy centers, like the help provided by the Knights of Columbus’s ultrasound project.

Contraception Leads to a Culture Dependent on Abortion

The biggest assumption at the heart of these statements, however, is that contraception prevents abortion. We can say that for the most part—and based on the available evidence—this is not true. In an article in the summer issue of the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, I use studies and statistics from the abortion industry to give a detailed account of how our culture’s reliance on contraceptives has counterintuitively led to our culture’s reliance on abortion. These statistics and others reveal that the reality is probably closer to the inverse of what these politicians and pundits claim, at least when we speak of abortion as a nationwide phenomenon. The bottom line is this: contraceptives do not work as advertised, and their failure is at the heart of the demand for abortion.

Contraception enables sexual encounters and relationships that would not have happened without it.

In the first instance, many of the interventions that doctors consider “contraception” are reliant on what the many women using them would classify as abortion. The IUD, regular oral contraceptives, Ella, and Plan B work partially or exclusively by making the uterine lining unhospitable for a newly conceived zygote, expelling that life. A substantial portion of women—44%, according to one study—would change their birth control method to avoid any possibility of running such risks.

More broadly than this, however, is the reality that the contraceptives we have come to rely on come with inherent failure rates, and these contraceptive failures form the core of the demand for abortion. It is not as though women entertain dreams of having a few abortions along the way in life. Instead, it is the case that contraception enables sexual encounters and relationships that would not have happened without it. In other words, when couples use contraception, they agree to sex when pregnancy would be a problem. This leads to a desire for abortion.

The Root of the Simultaneously Rising Rates

The Guttmacher Institute—the vast research arm of the abortion industry—recognizes this, to the point where they launched a 2003 investigation into why, in the United States and in other countries, “contraceptive prevalence and the incidence of induced abortion…rise in parallel, contrary to what one would expect.” While the study speculates as to some reasons for this, it somehow misses the most plausible answer: contraceptive failure rates.

Guttmacher’s study noted that couples in societies that did not rely on contraception ‘are at little (or no) risk of unwanted pregnancies.’

Even if we achieved perfect use of condoms and the pill alone, at current usage rates, our nation would still experience 231,000 pregnancies among women who were using these methods, according to their failure rates in the midst of “perfect usage”. We can predict that nearly 100,000 of these women would go on to seek an abortion.

But reality is far less than perfect, perhaps especially when it comes to sexual relationships, many of which begin because of the availability of contraception. Among typical users of condoms and the pill alone, we can predict more like 2.1 million pregnancies and 832,000 abortions of the 1.2 million total abortions (numbers here are from 2010).

These numbers come from a simple calculation of failure rates multiplied against usage rates. Looking deeper into the statistics, one finds that there is much more to the story. For example, only 8% of women who have had an abortion have never used contraceptives, and failure rates vary widely among different demographics. Altogether, the statistics tell stories of imperfect technologies and technologies used imperfectly—contraception as a project first endeavored but then abandoned, mismanaged, or paused as life’s irregularities make it desired, then not desired, and then desired again. But too often, it’s too late.

How stark is this phenomenon? Returning to Guttmacher’s study, they noted that couples in societies that did not rely on contraception “are at little (or no) risk of unwanted pregnancies.” This is their description of societies before contraceptives. After fifty plus years of the current approach, we still struggle with “unintended” or “unwanted” pregnancies, ultimately leaving us with over a million abortions a year. The notion that the answer to this dilemma is more contraception, which is at the heart of much of our public policy, is a notion that has little support in the lived experience of people who have embraced abortion. The time is coming when politicians and pundits will have a harder time asserting that contraception is the answer to abortion, as the empirical and historical records suggest quite the opposite.