Examining the Declining Abortion Rate

Science Features Abortion
Examining the Declining Abortion Rate

Abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the U.S. Regardless of personal beliefs on the topic, most everyone can agree that reducing abortions is good for society, even if they can’t agree on the best method to do so.

Thus, it should be welcoming news that abortions have been steadily decreasing in the U.S. since 1981 and are now at their lowest level since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

But what factors are behind such an encouraging trend? Luckily, there is years’ worth of data on the subject that paint a clear picture: comprehensive sex education and access to contraceptives are effective tools to combat unwanted pregnancy and abortions.

The Role of Education
With any issue, proper education is important. Teaching students complete data sets is critical for them to make informed decisions, regardless of the topic.

In relation to sexual health, the most extensive teaching approach is through comprehensive sex education, which includes discussion on all aspects of reproductive health, such as contraceptive options, abstinence, abortions, sexually transmitted infections and HIV. This is opposed to abstinence.

Abstinence-only education, which often does not cover the full range of relevant subject matter, has provided false and misleading information in some cases.

Consequently, it should be no surprise that States with greater promotion of abstinence-only education have statistically higher rates of teen pregnancies. In fact, it is estimated that compressive sex education can reduce teen pregnancies by 50 percent compared to abstinence-only education.

Further, the main goal of abstinence-only education—to prevent teens from having intercourse outside of marriage—falls utterly short. Studies have shown that abstinence-only education does not impact the rate at which teens are “doing it,” nor does it delay the initiation of sexual experiences or reduce the number of sexual partners.

teen birth map 2014.jpgImage via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The data also shows that—contrary to some opinions—teaching comprehensive sex education does not increase the rate that teenagers engage in sexual activity. In fact, teaching comprehensive sex education may actually decrease it.

Based on the available data, it is clear that we should strive to educate students to the fullest capacity on sexual health. Due to the profound impact on the lives of current and future youth, it may be the most important subject in school.

Contraceptive Access
joel iud.jpgPhoto by Sarah Mirk, CC BY-SA

Access to contraceptives is also crucial in the effort to curtail unwanted pregnancies. States like Colorado have experimented with free birth control programs, finding that providing contraceptives to low-income women has coincided with a 42 percent decrease in the teen abortion rate from 2009 to 2013. A similar trial was conducted in St. Louis, where the abortion rate decreased by 78 percent compared to the national average.

A contributor to the overwhelming success of these studies is believed to be long-acting reversible contraceptives, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and under-the-skin implants.

If greater access to contraceptives were provided nationwide, researchers estimate that it would lead to a decrease in abortions by 41 to 71 percent.

These numbers are staggering.

If the goal is prevent unwanted pregnancy and abortion, there appears to be very effective methods available that can help meet this objective.

Economics of Sexual Health
On top of preventing abortions through comprehensive sex education and accessible contraceptives, reducing teen pregnancy could also save taxpayers some serious money, as teen childbearing is estimated to cost the U.S. around $10 billion annually. It is easy to see that decreasing the number of unwanted pregnancies could provide substantial economic benefit.

Another potential cost-saving measure could be accomplished by expanding access to Medicaid family planning, which would save taxpayers an estimated $1.32 billion annually.

Additionally, high rates of unwanted pregnancies are holding back women from higher education and career opportunities. Roughly half of teen mothers did not finish their high school diploma by age 22, which is about 5 times higher than teenagers that did not give birth.

The U.S. Outlook
teen birth rates global.jpgImage via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The U.S. currently lags well behind other developed countries in teen pregnancy rates. Conceptive use, education and societal acceptance are believed to be large reasons why.

Despite such evident data, the U.S. continues to push abstinence-only education, which has left American taxpayers on the hook for more than $600 million since 2006, including a 2010 bill that requires abstinence-only education funding.

Meanwhile, researchers believe that abstinence-only education ”may actually be promoting irresponsible, high-risk teenage behavior by keeping teens uneducated with regard to reproductive knowledge and sound decision-making instead of giving them the tools to make educated decisions regarding their reproductive health.”

Moving forward, lawmakers should rethink abstinence-only education and also be very careful in their look at both the Affordable Care Act, which mandates conceptive coverage, and Planned Parenthood, which provides education and contraceptives. The national abortion rate could very well be impacted by any uncalculated legislation.

In the end, America needs to put the pro-choice vs. pro-life animosity to bed and make pro-data decisions that will benefit everyone in the long run.

Main photo by Esparta Palma. Lead photo by Bill Davenport.

Joel Rindelaub is an active scientific researcher and Ph.D. chemist based in Minnesota.

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