Tag: Teenage pregnancy

Back to the 60’s

One of the things that rarely gets talked about is how many social issues have dramatically improved over the last 20-30 years. Crime, for example, has plunged to rates not seen since the 1960’s. Teen pregnancy rates are down to the lowest levels since we started measuring. Drug use rates are steady or down.

Oh, and something else is way down: abortion:

The abortion rate in the United States dropped to its lowest point since the Supreme Court legalized the procedure in all 50 states, according to a study suggesting that new, long-acting contraceptive methods are having a significant impact in reducing unwanted pregnancies.

There were fewer than 17 abortions for every 1,000 women in 2011, the latest year for which figures were available, according a paper published Monday from the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights think tank. That is down 13 percent from 2008 and a little higher than the rate in 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

The abortion rate is now down to almost half of what it was in the early 80’s, when it peaked. And it’s not just Guttmacher. CDC measured the abortion rate even lower, at 14.5 per thousand.

Despite the first paragraph, the study did not actually look at the reasons why the abortion rate has fallen. Guttmacher is claiming that it is because of better sex education and contraception availability (particularly the IUD). While these have certainly played a role, I am dubious that they can explain the entire drop or even most of it. Teen pregnancies have plunged and unintended pregnancies are down a bit, but the live birth rate has been steady for the last 40 years and the unintended pregnancy rate hasn’t fallen nearly as much as the abortion rate has. So while it’s true that a large portion can be attributed to fewer women getting pregnant (both from birth control and from teenagers waiting longer than before to have sex) it’s also true, as conservative groups are arguing, that fewer women are choosing to have an abortion.

Why fewer are choosing to have an abortion is debatable. I would guess that restrictions on abortion are playing a role (waiting periods, in particular). But most of the plunge happened before the recent wave of laws took effect. I would guess that a declining social stigma against out-of-wedlock birth is playing a role, since that’s the one social ill. I would have guessed that increasing wealth was playing a role, but the abortion rate has continued to fall through the recession. I think it’s also possible, as some of the pro-life groups are arguing, that the ability to get sonograms and heartbeats at earlier and earlier gestational periods is causing women to rethink.

No matter how many times I turn this over, however, I can not find a government policy to credit for it. In the end, I think that society has changed, in one way or many ways, such that fewer abortions are happening. And no matter where you fall on the abortion issue, I think we can all agree that 700,000 fewer abortions every year is a good thing.

However it is has happened, it is interesting that our society has reduced its abortion rate down to where it was when abortion was still largely illegal. We are seeing that social change can be just as effective, if not more effective, than law when it comes to advancing a moral cause. This is a lesson worth savoring the next time someone come around with a crusade.

Babies Delaying Babies

Last week, the CDC announced that teen pregnancy rates are the lowest … ever. At least for the seven decades they have been measuring. The fall has erased the surge we had in the late 80’s/early 90’s and the rates are now lower than any time since the 40’s. The rate of teen abortion is way down as well.

The CDC attributes this to increased use of contraception. This, of course, has provoked the usual outcry from the usual quarters, who are insisting that the real cause of the drop is abstinence education, which somehow propagated backward in time to 1991, when the teen pregnancy rate hit its recent peak. It has also apparently propagated to states that do not have abstinence-only education and have the lowest teen pregnancy rates.

Of course, it’s garbage. Teens who get comprehensive sex education — meaning they are taught about abstinence and birth control — are far more likely to delay sex as well as far more likely to use contraception. The reason, I think, is that when you know that safe sex entails adult actions like buying condoms or pills, it becomes intimidating. It becomes a real complicated thing, not some mysterious fantasy. It’s much easier to have sex when you think Jesus is going to protect you than when you know you yourself have to drag you yourself’s own ass down the to drug store and you yourself have to buy condoms from a smirking clerk.

As I noted before, however, these stubborn facts are unlikely to change the Culture Conservatives’ minds. To them, the important thing is that we tell teens not to have sex; that we wave the moral flag that any pre-martial sex is unacceptable even if said waving means more horny ignorant teens getting knocked up or infected. The principle is what matters, not the result. I see no reason, however, why this moral view should triumph over a clear public health need.

I think it’s likely some other factors are contributing as well. The decline in pregnancy rates has corresponded with the rise in porn, sexting and other online sexual trends. Feminists, having utterly failed to show that porn leads to sexual violence, have recently argued that porn is destroying sexual intimacy. I wonder if they are grazing a truth: if online porn makes it easier or someone to get his jollies risk-free (modulo parents who can read a browser history) until he is mature enough for the real thing.

I also wonder if the last two decades of tightening abortion restrictions have contributed. Parental notification laws and other changes have made abortion a hassle, if nothing else. It is a primary principle of economics that incentives matter. If it’s harder to get an abortion, people are less likely to engage in behavior that may lead to one.

But these are likely minor factors. The big change, according to most research, is that teens are delaying sex and are more likely to use birth control when they do get busy. Both of these are good things and both have been going on for twenty years now. Abstinence-only education is the only thing that’s not helping. Whatever else we’re doing, it’s working.

Rick Perry and The Moral Question

This has been floating around for a week. I saw it when I lived in Texas. It’s Ricky Perry fumbling for an answer to a question on abstinence-only education (as opposed to the ABC approach taken by most reputable programs: Abstain, Be faithful, use a Condom). The questioner points out the massive failure of the abstinence-only approach: kids are no less likely to have sex but are less likely to use protection. Perry … can’t answer.

I’m tempted to say this means Perry is stupid, but even the smartest of the moral conservatives fumble this question. Why? I think this critique, if you ignore the snide tone, gets close:

Liberals may think that conservatives support abstinence education because they believe it will reduce teen pregnancy, when the truth is that stopping teen pregnancy is at best a minor consideration for conservatives. If there’s going to be any discussion of sex in school at all, they believe it ought to express the categorical moral position that sex is vile and dirty and sinful, until you do it with your spouse, at which point it becomes beautiful and godly (you’ll forgive a bit of caricature). The fact that abstinence-only education is far less effective at reducing teen pregnancy than comprehensive sex-ed isn’t something they’re pleased about, but it doesn’t change their conviction about the moral value that ought to be expressed.

I have frequently found myself at loggerheads on culture issues in which I’m arguing a practical perspective and my opponents are arguing a moral one. Drug warriors, for example, will sometimes concede that there would be less violence and civil liberties violations if the War on Drugs were ended. But they don’t think the government should be permitting drug use; that it should take a stand against vile and self-destructive behavior. Pro-lifers aren’t ignorant of the back alleys; but they can not have the government allowing fetuses to be destroyed. They see the back alleys as a different issue. Even the immigration issue breaks down this way. For all the “jobs Americans won’t take” rhetoric, there are a lot of people who think that lawbreaking should not be encouraged.

Now before liberals get too high up on their “you can’t legislate morality” high horse, let’s remember that liberals do this too. “The rich should pay their fair share” is a moral question, not a practical one, despite numerous attempts to make it so. “Everyone should have health insurance” is a moral judgement as is “everyone should have a quality education” or “the government should make sure everyone has food and shelter”. These may have practical aspects; I may even agree with them on some level. But they are fundamentally moral questions, no matter how much the Left tries to pretend that, for example, national health insurance will spur the economy. We can’t pretend the moral element only exists when sex is involved.

Moral conflicts are, almost by definition, emotional and contentious. It’s difficult to find points of compromise. That is why I tend to favor letting the issues be resolved somewhere other than the national stage. That libertarian viewpoint places me opposite of both the culture conservatives and the economic liberals. But I see it as simply practical.