It’s one of those stories that should seem profoundly obvious, but in our culture where misogynist myths and right-wing propaganda so often trump common sense, it was actually something of a revelation: A long-term study in St. Louis that offers women the free birth control of their choice has revealed that, amongst other positive effects, the program lowered the abortion rate for the participants. In fact, the results were dramatic. There were 4.4 to 7.5 abortions per 1,000 women in the program, compared to a national average of almost 20 abortions per 1,000 women nationally.
That having access to free contraception would make women much better users of contraception shouldn’t be a surprise, and for feminist-minded folks, this study just reaffirmed what we already knew, which is most people will take a good deal when they get it. The problem is that in the past few years, a number of conservatives have taken to denying that there is a link between contraception and lowering the unintended pregnancy rate. Indeed, some anti-choicers have promoted a strange theory that contraception actually raises the abortion rate, because it encourages people to have sex and then to abort the pregnancies that result. Their term for it is the “contraceptive mentality”, and the theory has gained enough traction on the right that it’s being promoted by none other than Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist and an embarrassment to that venerable institution.
The reason anti-choicers have taken to denying that contraception prevents unwanted pregnancy is complex. The argument really arose after pro-choicers began to realize that contraception was the Achilles heel of the anti-choice movement. Anti-choicers claim to oppose abortion because of “life,” but it’s quite obvious to pro-choicers that it’s actually because of a mix of sex negativity and a desire to return to pre-feminist restrictive gender roles, especially for women. Pointing out that anti-choicers fight at every term against improving access to contraception demonstrates how it’s about sex and not life; after all, if they really believed that abortion was about life, they’d be demanding free contraception for all to prevent as many abortions as possible. Realizing that their opposition to contraception was blowing their cover, many anti-choicers simply decided to start arguing that contraception doesn’t actually prevent abortion. That way, they could both keep their cover story about “life” and continue to fight against every technological innovation that allows people to have healthy sex lives and women to keep their fertility from interfering with their life goals.
The claim that access to contraception doesn’t reduce the need for abortion rests on an incredibly misogynist assumption, which is that women are, by nature, too stupid and irresponsible to keep up with a contraception regime, even if you make it easy for them. There’s no way around drawing this conclusion. If you deny outright that women struggle to afford contraception, the only possible reason left that women don’t stick to using it has to be that women themselves are failures. When Rich Lowry says, “by any reasonable standard, we are one of the most lavishly contracepted societies in the history of the planet,” and then concludes that this “lavish” access to contraception hasn’t done much, if anything, to prevent unintended pregnancy, the only implication possible is that he thinks women really are profoundly stupid people who can’t be expected to take even basic care of themselves.
Of course, as the St. Louis study shows, the misogynists are wrong and the feminists are right: Women’s inability to keep up with their need for reliable and accessible contraception says less about women and more about the lack of access. Which means that if you fix the access problem, women do get much better at using contraception. Not perfect, by any means, because women are people and people aren’t perfect. But women aren’t stupid as a class, and if they’re given basic tools to take care of their health, they do a pretty good job. Certainly a much better job than the conservative pundits and politicians who believe they should have the power to make women’s reproductive choices for them.
Obviously, the primary reason to give women more access to affordable contraception is not to lower the abortion rate. The primary reason is that women bear an unfair burden of having to prevent and deal with unplanned pregnancy, and giving them tools to control their bodies is the only just and humane response to this inherent injustice. The second reason is that unplanned pregnancy is a legitimate public health problem, and as with vaccines and clean drinking water, if we have the tools to tackle a public health problem, we should use them. But reducing the abortion rate is a pleasant side effect, if for no other reason than abortion is expensive and most women would rather prevent an unintended pregnancy and the need for an abortion in the first place, for the same reason that most of us would rather not have the need for any kind of medical intervention that we could otherwise avoid.
But as a rhetorical tool, pointing out the effect that access to contraception has on the abortion rate is excellent. It demonstrates neatly that the anti-choice movement doesn’t care about “life” at all, because given the choice between lowering the abortion rate and depriving women of opportunities to prevent unintended pregnancy, they pick the latter every time. Every time an anti-choicer denounces the HHS regulation requiring insurance companies to cover contraception (and counseling on correct use of contraception!) without a copay, they need to be hit with these statistics and asked why they want the American abortion rate to continue to be so high relative to other Western nations with more progressive sexual health policies.