Last year, when data emerged showing that the teen pregnancy rate, the overall unintended pregnancy rate and the abortion rate in the United States declined — in some cases to record lows — lots of hands shot up across the political spectrum.
Everyone, it seemed, wanted some of the credit — those who oppose abortion rights and have advocated for the restrictive policies passed in several states, those who support access to safe and legal abortion, those who support comprehensive sex education, and those who think sex ed should be limited to talk of abstinence. The Fix wrote then and will do so again now that all involved should probably take a deep breath and consider the evidence.
This year, perhaps sensing that new data would produce credit-claiming for the decline in abortion rates in developed countries and teen pregnancy across all racial and ethnic groups in the United States, a joint study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization has found that the downward trajectory in these trends is larger and longer-running than we thought. (The Guttmacher Institute is the nation’s leading abortion-rights research organization that produces scientifically sound and widely referenced research.)
In fact, in developed countries around the world, the abortion rate among girls and women ages 15 to 44 (which is generally considered childbearing age) declined significantly from 46 per 1,000 in 1990 to 27 in 2014.
In the United States, both the teen pregnancy and abortion rates have dropped across all racial and ethnic groups since the 1990s. And in a separate study of the most recent U.S. data available, conducted by Guttmacher alone, researchers found that both the teen pregnancy and teen abortion rates in the United States hit a record low in 2011.
Now, back to that joint Guttmacher/WHO study of abortion rates around the world. When researchers looked at the data more closely, they found two other very big things.
First, despite the overall decrease, there was no decrease in the abortion rate in developing countries where access to contraception and abortions tends to be difficult if not unstable or tightly restricted. The abortion rate dropped in developing countries from 39 abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 in 1990 to 37 in 2014. That change is so small that it isn’t statistically significant and regarded by researchers as no change at all. Worldwide, that means that the annual number of abortions grew from about 50.4 million in the period between 1990 and 1994 to 56.3 million between 2010 and 2014, largely because of population growth.
Second, when researchers grouped countries by the types of laws governing abortion — trying to figure out whether restrictive laws helped or hurt — they did not find a significant difference in the abortion rate where abortion is illegal and where it is not. In countries that ban abortion except to save a woman’s life, the abortion rate between 2010 and 2014 sat at 37 per 1,000 women of childbearing age. But in parts of the world where abortion is legal, the abortion rate was just slightly lower, at 34 per 1,000. Again, mathematically, that difference is too small to be considered scientifically significant.
Taken together, the researchers concluded that, in countries where people had better access to contraception, the number of unintended pregnancies went down, bringing the abortion rate down with it. That news that won’t likely be accepted with glee among those who want to eliminate abortion rights in the United States. It’s rare to find support for increased access to birth control in that camp. But, the Guttmacher/WHO and the Guttmacher look at teen pregnancy and abortion in the United States also tell the same story that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did when the agency released a study last year. A growing number of women and girls are using long-acting, more reliable forms of birth control, such as the IUD, in the United States. That’s driving down unintended pregnancy and, again, the abortion rate. Activists who worked to pass laws in states around the country have also insisted that the biggest decreases in the abortion rate happened in some of those same states.
There’s a lot of information emerging about trends in teen and adult pregnancy that people with a wide variety of views on abortion may well find difficult to process.
In 2014, after reality TV shows such as MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” and its “Teen Mom” series had become mainstays on our cable airwaves, researchers at the Brookings Institution dropped a bit of a bombshell. The bipartisan think tank found teen-centric evidence that “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” contributed to the decline in the U.S. teen pregnancy rate . That’s right: Researchers found that “Teen Mom” may have indeed been a good thing.
This is what the researchers said, in their own words, about their conclusions and how they reached them. The emphasis in bold below is ours.
We use data from Google Trends and Twitter to document changes in searches and tweets resulting from the show, Nielsen ratings data to capture geographic variation in viewership, and Vital Statistics birth data to measure changes in teen birth rates. We find that 16 and Pregnant led to more searches and tweets regarding birth control and abortion, and ultimately led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births in the 18 months following its introduction. ...
The results of our analysis indicate that exposure to 16 and Pregnant was high and that it had an influence on teens’ thinking regarding birth control and abortion. Large spikes in search activity and tweets about the show are evident exactly at the time a new episode was released. We also see an associated spike in Google searches and twitter messages containing the terms “birth control” and “abortion.” Locations in which the show was more popular experienced greater increases in searches/tweets like this when the show was on the air.
Our most important finding is that the introduction of 16 and Pregnant along with its partner shows, Teen Mom and Teen Mom 2, led teens to noticeably reduce the rate at which they give birth. Our estimates imply that these shows led to a 5.7 percent reduction in teen births that would have been conceived between June 2009, when the show began, and the end of 2010. This can explain around one-third of the total decline in teen births over that period. Data limitations preclude us from conducting separate analyses of pregnancies and abortions, but we note that teen abortion rates also fell over this period (Pazol, et al., 2013). This suggests that the shows’ impact is attributable to a reduction in pregnancy rather than greater use of abortion.
Politics and policy changes, it seems, are only part of the prescription for lowering abortion and teen pregnancy rates.