Sunday, February 19, 2012

Don't Douthat

Ross Douthat, conservative New York Times columnist, devoted his column Saturday to the shortcomings of the liberal and conservative views on abortion prevention, with an emphasis on liberal failures. His thesis? The last part of "Safe, legal, and rare" is not true, as proven by state-by-state statistics. States with liberal laws on abortion, contraception, and sex ed., he says, have lower birth count numbers only because their unwanted pregnancies--which are similar across the board--are terminated by abortion at higher rates.
But the liberal narrative has glaring problems as well. To begin with, a lack of contraceptive access simply doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in unplanned pregnancy in the United States. When the Alan Guttmacher Institute surveyed more than 10,000 women who had procured abortions in 2000 and 2001, it found that only 12 percent cited problems obtaining birth control as a reason for their pregnancies. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of teenage mothers found similar results: Only 13 percent of the teens reported having had trouble getting contraception.
This is not true. Or, at least, it is not the whole truth.

Yes, the two studies Ross cites both show only a small percentage, 12 or 13 percent, of women who had procured abortions and teenage mothers, had trouble accessing contraception. This is true as far as it goes, which isn't very. Ross's criticism is of the liberal theory of abortion prevention as a whole, which downplays abstinence education and similar moralizing in favor of, yes, increased access to contraceptives, but also education on how to use them and prevent pregnancy.

The results bear this out, and in fact directly contradict what Ross is saying (emphases mine):
Forty-six percent of women had not used a contraceptive method in the month they conceived, mainly because of perceived low risk of pregnancy and concerns about contraception (cited by 33% and 32% of nonusers, respectively). The male condom was the most commonly reported method among all women (28%), followed by the pill (14%). Inconsistent method use was the main cause of pregnancy for 49% of condom users and 76% of pill users; 42% of condom users cited condom breakage or slippage as a reason for pregnancy.
Approximately one half (50.1%) of these teens were not using any method of birth control when they got pregnant, and of these, nearly one third (31.4%) believed they could not get pregnant at the time; 21.0% used a highly effective contraceptive method (although less than 1% used one of the most effective methods, such as an intrauterine device [IUD]); 24.2% used the moderately effective method of condoms; and 5.1% used the least effective methods, such as rhythm and withdrawal. To decrease teen birth rates, efforts are needed to reduce or delay the onset of sexual activity, provide factual information about the conditions under which pregnancy can occur, increase teens' motivation and negotiation skills for pregnancy prevention, improve access to contraceptives, and encourage use of more effective contraceptive methods.
A third of women not using birth control did so because they simply believed they wouldn't get pregnant, and  an enormous percentage of those who used it and got pregnant anyway did so because they were using it incorrectly or inconsistently. This is damns liberal policy only in the sense that it isn't being implemented well enough.

When Ross moves into the pregnancy rates of red vs. blue states, he gets into even shakier territory:
What’s more, another Guttmacher Institute study suggests that liberal states don’t necessarily do better than conservative ones at preventing teenagers from getting pregnant in the first place. Instead, the lower teenage birth rates in many blue states are mostly just a consequence of (again) their higher abortion rates. Liberal California, for instance, has a higher teen pregnancy rate than socially conservative Alabama; the Californian teenage birth rate is only lower because the Californian abortion rate is more than twice as high.
He doesn't say which Guttmacher Institute study says this, so I took a look. The very first result for "rate of unintended pregnancies by state" on Google is a Guttmacher study, from 2011, that reaches the exact opposite conclusion as Ross:
In 2006, the median state unintended pregnancy rate was 51 per 1,000 women aged 15–44. Most rates fell within a range of 40–65 unintended pregnancies per 1,000 women. The highest rate was in Mississippi (69); the lowest rate was in New Hampshire (36). Rates were generally highest in the South and Southwest, and in states with large urban populations. In 29 states and the District of Columbia, more than half of pregnancies were unintended; in nine, a consistent upward trend in unintended pregnancy rates between 2002 and 2006 was apparent; no state had a consistent decline.
This isn't to say he's wrong about Alabama and California, which indeed do have similar rates. But note the mention of "states with large urban populations." I looked at a comparison of both unintended pregnancy rates and demographic data for Alabama and New Hampshire, red and blue states which don't have especially large urban centers, as well as New York, a blue state which does (California is missing a lot of the variables I was looking for) and has a similar unintended pregnancy rate as Alabama.

The results are telling: when looking at children living in poverty, Alabama and New York are at 25% and 20% respectively, while New Hampshire is only 10%. When the rate of unintended pregnancies per 1,000 is broken down along ethnic lines, the differences are startling.

Teen Pregnancy Rate by Race/Ethnicity

New Hampshire
New York
Non-Hispanic Whites, 2005
African Americans, 2005
Hispanics, 2005

African-Americans are disproportionately poor, as are Hispanics, who often face additional language barriers. Poverty goes hand-in-hand with a lack of educational opportunities. And as these results have shown, the poverty rate in these states runs parallel with the unintended pregnancy rate. Since so many of these pregnancies happen because of lack of correct information, it is not at all a stretch to conclude that the poorest Americans are not as educated as they could be about pregnancy prevention.

Poverty isn't a slam dunk explanation by any means, but it's certainly a factor, and one that Ross doesn't even begin to consider. Far from disproving the liberal idea of birth control, the data, properly examined, largely vindicate it.

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