In its political and legal battle with Catholic leaders over the birth control mandate in health reform, the Obama administration has powerful new statistics in its corner: the National Center for Health Statistics released a report on Wednesday finding that both pregnancy and abortion rates have dropped for women in their twenties since 1990. An author of the study attributes both these trends to effective use of birth control methods.
Policies that improve access to contraceptives help women avoid unintended pregnancy — an important policy goal most pro-choice and pro-life people share. One can only pray (ha ha) that Catholic leaders who are suing to make it harder for their employees to access contraceptives via work health plans will take note of this drop in pregnancy and abortion rates and begin to see the value of contraceptive coverage.
In their lawsuit, 43 Catholic organizations including universities and dioceses have asserted that federal health reform’s mandate constitutes a violation of religious freedom under the First Amendment. The mandate requires Catholic employers to allow their employees to contract directly with insurance providers for contraceptive coverage.
But the suit seems to sorely miss the bigger picture, which the National Center for Health Statistics report helps convey: women rely on birth control, and pro-contraceptive policies have helped achieve the drop in unintended pregnancy and abortion rates.
The report compares 1990 and 2008. During this time period, pregnancy rates for women aged 20-24 fell by 18 percent and abortion rates by nearly 20 percent. (A study by the Guttmacher Institute from February also found dramatic drops in teen pregnancy and abortion rates over roughly the same period.) Also during this time period, critical work was happening between 1990-2008: activists and attorneys fought for contraceptive coverage mandates in 28 states and influenced many national health plans to begin covering contraceptives. The statistics released today align with the fact that much heavy lifting in contraceptive coverage policy had already been done during the 1990-2008 time period — well before federal health reform came along.
But foo foo ideas like meeting a shared goal, or data about the impact of contraceptive access on abortion, probably won’t influence Catholic leadership’s decision to oppose the mandate. Their suit is about Catholic principles, after all.
It is unclear how or if the Catholic plaintiffs’ suit will be decided, since the birth control mandate does not go into effect for another year and the Obama administration is still considering the concerns of many of the Catholic plaintiffs in developing final health reform regulations. And, the Supreme Court could render the claim moot if it chooses to strike down health reform in its entirety. In which case, women can be grateful for all of the pro-contraceptive coverage policy that came well before health reform.