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03.04.11

Busting the Birth-Control Myth

Planned Parenthood claims women get more abortions if they don’t have access to contraception—though research suggests otherwise. Kirsten Powers reports.

Author's Note: I made a serious error in reporting this column that undermines the conclusion I drew. I compared statistics on contraceptive use from a January 2011 Guttmacher Institute fact sheet to a year 2000 study on the same issue.  However, I did not realize that the 2011 fact sheet derived its statistics from the year 2000 numbers, so my argument was not supported by the data. I am deeply sorry for the error, which invalidates my piece.

During the recent debate over whether to cut off government funding to Planned Parenthood, the organization claimed that its contraceptive services prevent a half-million abortions a year. Without their services, the group’s officials insist, more women will get abortions.

I’ll admit I bought the argument—it makes intuitive sense—and initially opposed cutting off funding for precisely that reason.

Then I did a little research.

Turns out, a 2009 study by the journal Contraception found, in a 10-year study of women in Spain, that as overall contraceptive use increased from around 49 percent to 80 percent, the elective abortion rate more than doubled. This doesn’t mean that access to contraception causes more abortion—though some believe that—but that it doesn’t necessarily reduce it.

In the U.S., the story isn’t much different. A January 2011 fact sheet by the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute listed all the reasons that women who have had an abortion give for their unexpected pregnancy, and not one of them is lack of access to contraception. In fact, 54 percent of women who had abortions had used a contraceptive method, if incorrectly, in the month they got pregnant. For the 46 percent who had not used contraception, 33 percent had perceived themselves to be at low risk for pregnancy; 32 percent had had concerns about contraceptive methods; 26 percent had had unexpected sex, and 1 percent had been forced to have sex. Not one fraction of 1 percent said they got pregnant because they lacked access to contraception. Some described having unexpected sex, but all that can be said about them is that they are irresponsible, not that they felt they lacked access to contraception.

Lack of knowledge of contraception also isn’t a reason that American women get abortions. Guttmacher reported that only 8 percent of women who undergo abortions have never used a method of birth control

This deception smacks of a fleecing of taxpayers in an effort to promote an ideological agenda, rather than a sincere effort to help women plan families.

But what is truly astonishing about the Guttmacher statistics is that they are completely unchanged from a decade ago.

In the year 2000, Guttmacher experts reported: “Forty-six percent of women [seeking abortions] had not used a contraceptive method in the month they conceived, mainly because of perceived low risk of pregnancy and concerns about contraception. More than half of women obtaining abortions in 2000 (54 percent) had been using a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant.” 

These are exactly the same as the 2011 numbers.

Over this time period, the U.S. government has funneled billions of dollars to Planned Parenthood, in large part because the organization claims to provide services to avoid unplanned pregnancies – a laudable goal. Yet despite a robust budget—Planned Parenthood reported a total annual revenue of $1.1 billion in its last financial filing—the organization has done absolutely nothing to change the fundamental dynamics of the United States’ abortion rate.

Asked about the “Contraception” study, the Guttmacher numbers and why no women were saying they got abortions due to lack of access to contraception, a Planned Parenthood spokesman emailed this Orwellian response: “I think the biggest barrier is access to affordable contraception.”  Huh?
 
I was pointed to a Planned Parenthood study that showed that one in three women voters reported having struggled with the cost of prescription birth control at some point.
 
It’s unclear whether Planned Parenthood officials simply don’t understand statistics or are so accustomed to having their claims unquestioned that they think if they repeat them often enough, the facts will disappear. Obviously, you can complain of struggling with the cost of prescription birth control and also face an unwanted pregnancy for reasons that have nothing to do with lack of access to birth control. (By the way, Guttmacher was founded by Planned Parenthood; these are the numbers the group views as the most reliable.)

The House recently approved a Republican proposal to block $363 million in federal aid for Planned Parenthood, a move wholly motivated by opposition to the abortion services that the organization provides--even though officials say they don't use federal funds directly to perform abortions. The vote was mostly along party lines, with 10 Democrats voting for the measure to defund, and seven Republicans opposing it. It is unlikely to survive in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

To preserve its federal subsidy, Planned Parenthood continues to claim that without its contraception services the abortion rate will go up. This deception smacks of a fleecing of taxpayers in an effort to promote an ideological agenda, rather than a sincere effort to help women plan families.

What is that ideology, exactly? To find out, you have to dig through Planned Parenthood’s tax forms because the group certainly isn’t going to tell you. According to its most recent tax filing, the purpose of Planned Parenthood Federation of America is to provide leadership in “[a]chieving, through informed individual choice, a U.S. population of stable size in an optimum environment; in stimulating and sponsoring relevant biomedical, socio-economic, and demographic research.”

So it is, in reality, a population-control organization. Funny, this was never mentioned in the gauzy $200,000 advertising campaign launched last week. It also doesn’t make it into the “About Us” section of the group’s website, which repeatedly claims its mission is to protect women’s health, when in fact the real mission is to keep the birth rate at whatever level the leaders believe it should be

To hear Planned Parenthood and their supporters, they exist only to provide Pap smears or breast exams or prenatal services. In fact, President Cecile Richards has gone so far as to erroneously imply that they provide mammograms. (A spokesperson for the group confirmed to me that this is untrue.)

Planned Parenthood officials are allowed to believe whatever they want and to pursue whatever goals they choose. But their dishonesty in how they present their organization to the public, along with ignoring basic statistics about their area of expertise, makes you wonder what else they are hiding. It’s also hard to deny that they are at core a blindly ideological organization, not a run-of-the-mill charitable nonprofit.

Whatever you think of abortion rights, this is not the kind of organization that taxpayers should be funding.

Kirsten Powers is a columnist for The Daily Beast. She is also a political analyst on Fox News and a writer for the New York Post. She served in the Clinton Administration from 1993-1998 and has worked in New York state and city politics. Her writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the New York Observer, Salon.com, Elle magazine and American Prospect online.