Give women the tools to prevent unintended pregnancy and they will. The problem is, a lot of women aren’t getting those tools.
A new statistical analysis, published this month, shows that poor and uneducated women have fallen farther behind their more affluent peers in their ability to control fertility and plan childbearing.
The nation’s overall rate of unintended pregnancies held steady from the mid-1990s through 2001, the most recent year such data is available. But that stability masked huge disparities between demographic groups, according to the new analysis by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group affiliated with Planned Parenthood.
Teenagers, college graduates and women in the middle or upper class dramatically reduced unintended pregnancy and abortion rates. Among poor women, though, the unplanned pregnancy rate jumped nearly 30%.
As a result, poor women are now four times more likely to face an unintended pregnancy than those who are better off. They’re also three times more likely to get an abortion.
It’s not brain surgery: Give all women education and birth control. Give them a variety of options in their lives — reproductive and otherwise. Instead, the fetus-fetishists among us would prefer to deny women contraceptives and sexual health information, despite the fact that such denials only increase the rate of unintended pregnancy, and by extension the abortion rate. But, we promise, it’s because we love babies!
The article is a good one, because it goes beyond the simple political talking points and recognizes that lowering the unintended pregnancy rate requires a multi-pronged approach. Obviously affordable and accessible birth control is part of the equation, but giving women and girls a sense of self-worth — giving them a reason to live for themselves — is also crucial.
Laura Gaydos came to a similar conclusion after holding recent focus groups with low-income women of all ages and races in cities across Georgia. A health researcher at Emory University in Atlanta, Gaydos said many of the women she interviewed simply didn’t see the urgency in going out of their way to prevent pregnancy. “There’s never going to be a perfect time to get pregnant,” she heard again and again. And: “Might as well let what happens, happen.”
Even when low-income women take the initiative to pick up birth control, they are often ambivalent about using it — or too disorganized to remember. Nearly half of all women who get abortions say they used birth control at some point during the month they conceived. In some cases it failed. In many others, they just didn’t use it correctly or consistently.
If you haven’t read the book Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, I’d highly recommend it. I read it my senior year of college in a reporting class, and it shifted my perspective on the family planning debates. Basically, LeBlanc spends years living in the Bronx, observing the inter-relationships of several individuals and families there. Her documentation extends for ten years, from the late 980s until fairly recently. From Publisher’s Weekly:
Politicians rail about welfare queens, crack babies and deadbeat dads, but what do they know about the real struggle it takes to survive being poor? Journalist LeBlanc spent some 10 years researching and interviewing one extended family-mother Lourdes, daughter Jessica, daughter-in-law Coco and all their boyfriends, children and in-laws-from the Bronx to Troy, N.Y., in and out of public housing, emergency rooms, prisons and courtrooms. LeBlanc’s close listening produced this extraordinary book, a rare look at the world from the subjects’ point of view. Readers learn that prison is just an extension of the neighborhood, a place most men enter and a rare few leave. They learn the realities of welfare: the myriad of misdemeanors that trigger reduction or termination of benefits, only compounding a desperate situation. They see teenaged drug dealers with incredible organizational and financial skills, 13-year-old girls having babies to keep their boyfriends interested, older women reminiscing about the “heavenly time” they spent in a public hospital’s psychiatric ward and incarcerated men who find life’s first peace and quiet in solitary confinement. More than anything, LeBlanc shows how demanding poverty is. Her prose is plain and unsentimental, blessedly jargon-free, and includidng street talk only when one of her subjects wants to “conversate.” This fine work deserves attention from policy makers and general readers alike.
Poverty is complicated, and growing up in poverty with few options isn’t an experience that too many policy-makers have had to weather. Why have I stayed un-pregnant until the ripe old age of 22? Well, largely because I have a deep desire not to be pregnant. I have that desire because I’ve always been presented with a lot of opportunities in my life, and I’ve wanted to take advantage of as many of them as possible. I’ve been able to take advantage of many of them because I was able to remain un-pregnant first by choosing not to have sex, and later by accessing affordable birth control. It’s been a series of rational choices.
And as Ampersand pointed out a while back, girls and women living in poverty within particular cultures are also rational decision-makers.
I think the pathology model is mistaken. Poverty is a cause of high teen pregnancy rates, rather than vice-versa. And poor black teens aren’t pathological; they’re rational actors, who make the best choice they can given the opportunities they have. When high rates of some population – in this case, poor girls and especially poor Blacks – get pregnant, then chances are getting pregnant is a good choice for their circumstances. If we want less pregnancy among poor black teens, then we need to reorder society so that poor black teens face a better set of circumstances.
Birth control is only one part of that.
The LA Times article also points out that this isn’t a “teenage” problem — the majority of unintended pregnancies happen to women over the age of 20. And yet the majority of government and non-profit programs are aimed at teens.
In part, that’s because such programs tend to get tangled in ideological disputes. Though liberals urge more classes and cheaper birth control, some conservatives warn that expanded access will only encourage reckless behavior.
This spring in Missouri, for instance, state Rep. Susan Phillips shot down a proposal to subsidize birth control for low-income women. That would be like subsidizing promiscuity, she argued.
Phillips, a Republican, explained by e-mail: “It is my hope that reducing access to contraception for recreational users and those not prepared to parent will give them time to consider the consequences” of having sex.
That “sex has consequences” message is pushed on teens through TV shows, magazines, movies and schools; some experts say it’s time to extend that campaign to adults as well.
“People don’t worry about problems they don’t know exist,” said Sarah Brown, director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
So what do conservatives urge for adult women? Sure, the abstinence message plays well when they talk about preventing teenagers from being sexually active. But what about when we’re talking about people in their 20s, 30s and 40s? What do we tell them? The “Remain abstinent until marriage” line doesn’t have quite as much pull with a 30-year-old as it does with a 13-year-old; and it isn’t going to mean anything to the married person who doesn’t want any more kids, or kids at all.
The conservative message has been entirely reactionary and regressive on this topic (but then, what else is new?). Instead of giving people options, or presenting a solution, they simply offer, “Don’t have sex.” Liberals are a little better in their promotion of birth control and safer sex practices, but even that doesn’t get to the heart of a lot of the issues behind the unintended pregnancy rate. We need universal healthcare. We need every child in this country to have a seat in an effective, fairly-funded classroom, under the direction of a teacher who is appreciated, adequately compensated, and not over-loaded and over-worked. We need to support families of all different types and structures. We need to dispel the Horatio Alger myth of the American Dream, which is a cruel joke for kids growing up in so many places in this country — and we need to replace that myth by taking a serious look at our social institutions and heirarchies which keep the rich richer and the poor poorer, reinstating privilege while patting ourselves on the backs for our “hard work.”
And we need to do something about it.
- Women of Color More Likely to Have Unintended Pregnancies by Jill May 12, 2006
- How Texas Got Itself The Highest Teen Birthrate In The Country by Jill April 2, 2006
- Confessions of Choice by Jill June 29, 2006
- Stupid Abstinence-Only Site of the Day by Jill December 19, 2005
- Pricier contraceptives for college women by Jill March 23, 2007