The last post reminded me of other misconceptions I frequently see thrown around in Catholic circles. I'm sure Bat would like me to remind you that not all Catholics believe or spread these errors. Today I want to talk about a few things I've learned about birth control in the past few years that I found very surprising -- considering the things I have been told in my Catholic education.
Myth #1: 50% of abortions are in women using birth control, which proves birth control contributes to abortion.
I see this one often, and the first half is right: half of women who have abortions were using some kind of birth control in the month they got pregnant. Most of these were using it inconsistently or incorrectly, true, but they were using it. So did it give them a false sense of security? Let's take a look at the numbers.
If 50% of women who were sexually active but did not want to get pregnant were on birth control, while 50% were not, that 50/50 split would mean that birth control had no effect on a woman's odds of getting an abortion. However, we all know most sexually-active women of reproductive age are on birth control. This very informative link suggests that "at-risk" women -- women who could get pregnant and don't want to -- use birth control at a rate of 90%. So already we're seeing that birth control is having an effect, because if 90% of women use it and get abortions at the same rate, they would be having 90% of the abortions, not 50%.
I am not sure what the correlation is between believing in birth control and believing in abortion. Presumably there is some correlation, because the very religious don't believe in either. We can then assume the subgroup that is on birth control is also a subgroup that also is more strongly in favor of abortion. They're also, I would assume, more likely to have access to it -- they have money and nearby Planned Parenthood clinics. But I can't say what the numbers might be here.
But I have the unplanned pregnancy numbers: 54% are among women who don't use birth control, 41% among women who use it, but inconsistently, and 5% among women who use it consistently.
I understand the assumption is that if women weren't using birth control, they would be less likely to have sex, but it doesn't appear so. Over half of the women who are getting pregnant aren't using birth control at all. I'm not sure what they expect to happen. Maybe, as has been the case throughout human history, they don't have a whole lot of self-control. Fornication wasn't invented in the Sixties.
But, you might say, birth control fueled the sexual revolution, and if only we didn't have that, we wouldn't have so much abortion. Well, that might be true, sure. But the numbers show that you can't put that genie back in the bottle simply by taking everyone's birth control away. People who don't have access to it -- because it's expensive, because insurance won't cover it, whatever -- are still having sex. And the odds of getting pregnant when you are fertile, sexually active, and not using any form of birth control are 85% over the course of one year.
And keep in mind that promiscuity isn't the only cause of abortion. Women who are married still get abortions. So even if no one had sex outside of marriage, abortion would still happen, because of the married women who feel unable to have another child right now. Married women are much more likely to consistently use birth control, which is surely part of the reason why they are less likely to have abortions than single women. What if women were more willing to have babies? Well, most women who have abortions already have at least one child. It looks like they like children fine; it's that they don't feel that they can care for more. Attempting to convince women that having a baby every year for their entire marriage is okay, especially in an economy which makes having children very expensive, would be a much tougher change to make.
The abortion rate has dropped significantly in the past few years, and it's pretty clear from the statistics that the reason is more people using birth control. It's not more people choosing to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, because it tracks along with a decreased unintended pregnancy rate. And it's not more people wanting babies either, because the intended pregnancy rate has gone up only slightly. Why are more women using birth control? Because their insurance is now required to cover it.
So it really puzzles me that Catholics are putting so much of their energy toward getting rid of that law. I understand, they feel it's cooperation with evil (and, in my opinion, they're wrong about that -- cooperating involuntarily, because you are legally required to, is not sinful) but still, do they realize they would be indirectly causing many abortions if they got their way?
Myth #2: But surely, on a cultural level, accepting contraception means encouraging abortion.
Then there's the question of whether, on a national or cultural level, widespread contraception use increases fornication and promotes a culture of death, thus driving the abortion rate up. I want to just drop this link on you and tell you to read it, because it seems to put that theory to rest pretty definitively. But instead I'll pull out a few facts for you:
*In Russia, at the time abortion was legalized (since illegal abortions were already rampant) an average married woman had ten abortions in her life. In the eighties, contraception started to become available and abortions started to drop. Between 1988 and 2001, contraceptive use rose 74% and the abortion rate declined 61%.
*In a region of Bangladesh which was provided with family-planning services, abortion rates dropped to one-third of the rates in the rest of Bangladesh.
*Studies like this one show that providing birth control did not increase sexual activity. (In fairness, this one showed a very slight difference -- though much smaller than the reduction birth control causes in the unplanned pregnancy and abortion rates.)
So, no, it does not appear that the availability of birth control increases the abortion rate by encouraging people to have more sex. It seems that the amount of sex people have and the number of children they want are both pretty independent of whether they have birth control available. The difference is in what methods they have to achieve what they want. When birth control isn't available, many people are going to turn to abortion.
Myth #3: The Pill causes abortion
That leads me to the third myth, which surely is a lot of people's reason for opposing birth control availability. The theory is that the Pill causes zygotes to fail to implant after fertilization, thus causing an "invisible" abortion. And I can't blame anyone for believing this, it's on the insert for the Pill: first, it claims, it suppresses ovulation; second, it thickens cervical fluid so that sperm can't reach the egg; and third, it makes the uterine lining thin and inhospitable to an embryo. That third method would amount to a very early abortion, though legally it isn't considered one. (In America "pregnancy" is defined as beginning with implantation, probably to avoid debates like this.)
The thing is, there isn't actually any evidence that this third method ever happens. We do know that the pill makes the uterine lining thin. However, that's when it actually works and prevents ovulation. When a breakthrough ovulation does take place, a woman's hormonal profile is quite different. Isn't it possible that in this case the uterine lining also manages to mature?
That's the argument made by these pro-life doctors. I share this article often because I think it's important for people to know that not only is there no evidence that the Pill causes abortions, the evidence leans toward showing that it does not. To sum up (because I admit the article is long and difficult; it took me a long time to read), the rate of breakthrough ovulation is (corrected for the normal early miscarriage rate) the same as the Pill's failure rate -- the rate of unintended pregnancy while on the Pill. (The evidence is even stronger, surprisingly enough, for the morning-after pill. The morning-after pill has a very high failure rate precisely because it can't prevent implantation.)
Now I mentioned "the normal early miscarriage rate" because a very large proportion of fertilized eggs never implant as it is. This is probably because of DNA errors and it appears there is no helping it. That means that if you are a sexually active woman who is not on birth control or pregnant, you have almost certainly lost many zygotes. This post points out that out of 100 women who aren't on birth control for a year, 85 zygotes will be lost. (And a further 85 will implant, which is why 85% of women will get pregnant in one year.) But if they are all on the Pill, they will only lose (using the worst possible estimate in case the Pill does cause zygotes to be lost) only two. Of course this is a utilitarian argument; I understand if your feeling is that it's better for 85 zygotes to die through no human cause than for two to die because of something a person did. But you aren't actually saving any lives by trying to prevent people from using oral contraceptives.
What is my point, with this post? Am I suggesting you should get on birth control? No. You should do what you want. Your own behavior is entirely in your control: you can choose to abstain, choose to accept many children, whatever you like. But influencing other people's behavior is another ball of wax. In public health, they don't talk about what it would be nice if people did. They talk about what interventions we can do, and what the actual results of those interventions will be. And it seems clear that intervening to keep people from getting birth control doesn't change their hearts, it doesn't stop them from having sex, and it doesn't make them want more children. It makes them get pregnant when they don't want to, and many of them will go on to have abortions.
So if you want to reduce abortions, trying to stop people from getting birth control when they want it is the most counterproductive thing you could possibly do. That's all I'm saying. I think it's important to shoot down these three misconceptions so that people know exactly what the results of their actions will be. I don't think, as many pro-choice activists do, that the pro-life movement is dishonest, or that it's just trying to control women rather than to save lives. I think people just don't know this information, and pro-life activity will be much more effective if it uses the most accurate information.