Did the Bad Economy Drive Down the Abortion Rate?

Think again.
Feb. 4 2014 1:41 PM

Abortion, Contraception, and the Economy

A homeless woman panhandles in New York City on June 20, 2011.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Today I wrote about the debate over who gets credit for the declining abortion rate. Pro-lifers think they did it, by persuading people that abortion is the wrong choice. Pro-choicers think birth control did it, by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies that lead to abortion. The evidence for the latter factor is stronger, though pro-lifers should take heart and realign their priorities accordingly, from legislation to education. You can read the whole article here.

But the most persuasive explanation for the decline is neither of these. It’s the economy. As researchers from the Guttmacher Institute point out in their analysis of the data,

Studies have found that trends in unemployment between 2007 and 2009 were accompanied by a drop in the fertility rate and, more specifically, that states that experienced greater economic distress had larger birthrate declines during this period. These findings are substantiated by a national survey of women conducted in 2009, which found that 44% wanted to delay or limit childbearing because of the economy … Presumably, then, more women and couples were making conscious decisions to avoid pregnancy and so resumed or continued using contraceptives.

The analysis continues:

Furthermore, while the majority of women want to avoid pregnancy, multiple studies have found that approximately one in five are ambivalent, and that pregnancy ambivalence is associated with inconsistent contraceptive use. During a period of prolonged economic uncertainty, women and couples may be more resistant to an “accidental” or “surprise” pregnancy, and hence more consistent in their contraceptive use.

One reason I find this explanation persuasive is that it fits the data. Another reason is that it makes practical sense. A third reason is that it isn’t being promoted by either side. It doesn’t come up because it suits somebody’s agenda. It comes up because it’s what the evidence supports.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

If this is the main reason for the recent decline in abortions (and I’m not ruling out the others—it’s a no-brainer that birth control reduces the need for abortion), this raises difficult questions for me and for Ross Douthat, with whom I’ve sometimes debated these issues. Douthat is a pro-natalist. He opposes abortion, worries about underpopulation, and believes society should encourage procreation, not birth control. The Guttmacher analysis challenges this worldview. It suggests that what has driven down the abortion rate in recent years is anti-natalism. Fear of procreation has increased fear of pregnancy, which in turn has increased contraceptive use and reduced the number of abortions.

But this raises problems for me, too. Last week, Douthat suggested that Roe v. Wade, by enabling women to avert the previously intolerable consequences of unintended pregnancy, weakened society’s insistence that a man should marry a woman if he wanted sex with her. I criticized this argument as harsh and punitive. But the Guttmacher analysis implies that harsh, punitive consequences—the unaffordability of bearing a child in a difficult economy—have achieved a moral objective I’ve long advocated. They have made people more diligent about using contraception.

For people like me, the question is how to sustain this diligence in the absence of economic pressure. I’m not sure how to accomplish that. I’d welcome your ideas.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
Future Tense
Sept. 21 2014 11:38 PM “Welcome to the War of Tomorrow” How Futurama’s writers depicted asymmetrical warfare.
  Health & Science
The Good Word
Sept. 21 2014 11:44 PM Does This Name Make Me Sound High-Fat? Why it just seems so right to call a cracker “Cheez-It.”
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.