News that the abortion rate has fallen pretty much across the board in the United States—both in states that have restricted access to the procedure, and in those that have not—is a reminder that, when it comes to such deeply personal decisions, individual circumstances and cultural trends exert more influence than even the most passionate policy debates.
But women are conscious of state-level legal restrictions on abortion, and these laws do have a significant impact on their behavior. That’s the key finding of a study just published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
While noting that “contraceptive choice is most strongly influenced by individual-level variables,” it finds that “women living in states with more restrictive abortion contexts tend to use highly effective contraceptives.”
To put it simply: In states that make abortions hard to obtain, women work harder to ensure they don’t get pregnant.
In states that make abortions hard to obtain, women work harder to ensure they don’t get pregnant.
The study, by Josephine Jacobs of Canada’s Western University and Maria Stanfors of Sweden’s Lund University, uses data on 14,523 women taken from the 1995 and 2010 cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth. The women, who were between the ages of 15 and 44, were sexually active, neither pregnant nor seeking to get pregnant, and considered “at risk for unintended pregnancy.”
They were divided into three groups: Those who used “highly effective methods” of contraceptive, such as the pill, patch, ring, or IUD; those who used “less effective methods” such as diaphragms or condoms; and those who did not use any contraceptives.
The women were also divided into three other groups: Those living in states with low, medium, or high levels of access to abortions. Complementing these rankings, the researchers created an “abortion hostility index,” in which they noted the presence (or absence) of parental involvement laws and mandatory delay periods.
The results: “Women who lived in a state where abortion access as low were more likely than women living in a state with greater access to use highly effective contraceptives, rather than no method (of birth control),” the researchers write. “Similarly, women in states characterized by high abortion hostility (i.e., states with four or more types of restrictive policies in place) were more likely to use highly effective methods than were women in states with less hostility.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Jacobs and Stanfors found women in states that tightened abortion restrictions between 1995 and 2010 did not increase their rate of contraceptive use over that period.
However, they noted that “six of the seven states that transitioned to the hostile category by 2010 already were close to it in 1995. Thus, women in these states may have already adjusted their contraceptive behavior to fairly restrictive abortion environments.”
No doubt people on either side of the abortion debate will have mixed reactions to these results. But given the fact that the U.S. has one of the highest rates of unintended pregnancy in the developed world, it's certainly an interesting finding. And as Jacobs and Stanfors note, the results suggest access to effective contraceptive methods is even more important for women living in abortion-unfriendly states.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.