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Sure, the bill is dressed up with some funding for after-school programs, and some (very poorly crafted) efforts to provide support for pregnant students. But make no mistake. The bill is “about access to birth control,” according to Congressman Ryan (MSNBC’s “Hardball,” May 19, 2009). In the same interview, Ryan explained: “We have to have birth control and contraception offered to these poor women who don’t have access to contraception, period, dot. There’s no other way we’re going to be able to reduce [abortions].” About what you’d expect in a bill whose co-sponsors enjoy a 100% pro-choice rating from NARAL.
Accordingly, their bill calls for grants for comprehensive sexuality education (abstinence-only educators need not apply!). It substantially increases funding for the federal Title X Family Planning Program. It denies state choice, making family planning services a mandatory Medicaid entitlement in all states, and greatly expands family planning eligibility under Medicaid to all women who are eligible under state law for prenatal, labor, and delivery care.
Some people might find this approach sensible. But they ignore at least two things. First, since at least 1980, taxpayers have been funding “family planning services” to the tune of over $1 billion per year. In 2006 such public expenditures totaled $1.85 billion. So today, virtually all teenagers who are sexually active and do not want to become pregnant are already using contraception. Only 7% are not using it, according to the Guttmacher Institute.Second, contraceptives don’t work very well in real life. In the first 12 months of contraceptive use, 16.4% of teens (1 in 6) will become pregnant. Among low-income cohabiting teens, the failure (pregnancy) rate over 12 months is 48.4% for birth control pills and 71.7% for condoms.
Numerous studies in the United States and Europe have found that greater access to contraception fails to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions. A recent $10 million intervention in England giving at-risk teens comprehensive sex education and contraception is a perfect example. Teens in the program had a pregnancy rate 2.5 times higher than a similar group of at-risk teens (16 vs. 6 percent).Why does increased access to contraception fail at the population level? Thinking they are protected from pregnancy and disease, more young people become sexually active and have more partners, offsetting any reduction in pregnancy from individual contraceptive use. And the increased level of sexual activity causes STD rates to soar. In the U.S., 1 in 4 teen girls has at least one STD; many of these are incurable and some are fatal.
The sharpest decline in unintended pregnancies and abortions since 1990 has occurred among those under 18, due not to comprehensive sex ed or contraception, but chiefly to the growing number of young people choosing to remain abstinent. Visit the Secretariat’s website for contraception facts and citations at www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/contraception/index.shtml, and let your member of Congress know that the Ryan/DeLauro bill cannot fulfill the promises in its title. The real abortion-reduction bill in Congress now is the Pregnant Women Support Act (S.1032, H.R.2035), which needs our support.
Susan Wills is Assistant Director for Education and Outreach in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. To learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities, see www.usccb.org/prolife.
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