Contraception 101: The Econ Course Our Politicians Need

Laurie Rubiner

Last week Congress ditched a family planning expansion from the stimulus, saying it didn't belong in an economic recovery package. But young, unintended parenting is a key indicator for poverty.

Last week, the Congress summarily
excised a provision from the stimulus package that would have expanded
family planning services for low-income women, claiming that the
provision didn’t belong in an economic recovery package. Led by
Republican Congressman John Boehner, the provision was mischaracterized
as costing the taxpayers money (though the nonpartisan Congressional
Budget Office determined that it actually saves the taxpayers $700 million over 10 years)
and was subsequently pilloried by talk show hosts and the media as an
example of how the stimulus bill had turned into one big package of
high priced bacon.  And – allow me to take a moment to put on my
I-have-no-sense-of-humor-feminista-hat – it provided wonderful
fodder for juvenile jokes by lots of male TV personalities, including
my own personal hero, Jon Stewart.

Now that the jokes have run their
course, and the stimulus bill is behind us, let’s consider whether
denying thousands of low-income women access to affordable
contraception is in fact a legitimate economic issue.  On August 20,
1964, in the White House Rose Garden, President Johnson signed the
Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic
Opportunity to direct and coordinate a variety of educational,
employment, and training programs that were the foundation of President
Johnson’s War on Poverty. What we may have forgotten from our history
lessons is that the Office of Economic Opportunity granted the first
funds ever to support domestic family planning programs. President
Johnson’s calculation was simple: one key factor to individual economic
opportunity is the ability to plan and space the number of children you
have. Because the surest route to poverty is young, single
parenthood. 

But don’t take my word for it –
consider the statistics. According to an analysis of census data
conducted by the nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen
Pregnancy and Unplanned Pregnancy, two-thirds of families begun by a young, unmarried mother are poor
And a child is nine times more likely to grow up in poverty if the
mother gave birth as a teen, the parents were unmarried when the child
was born, and the mother did not receive a high school diploma or a
GED. It is a spiral we know all too well – a study by S.D. Hoffman
shows that only 40 percent of mothers who have children before age 18
graduate from high school, and only two percent complete college.  By
comparison, 75 percent of women who delay childbearing until they are
20 or 21 finish high school and nine percent complete a college degree.
The House Committee on Ways and Means in studying these numbers
determined that in the last 20 years, the median income for college
graduates has increased 19 percent while decreasing for high school
dropouts by 28 percent. I’m no financial wizard, but this income
disparity sure sounds like a pretty serious economic issue to me.

Sure, there are those who will say all
women have to do is abstain from sex until they are married and their
economic futures will be secure. But now that we have a president in
the White House who is actually interested in evidence, we can
acknowledge once and for all that the $1.5 billion the Bush
Administration spent on abstinence only programs didn’t work – 88
percent of teens who pledged virginity in middle and high school still
engaged in premarital sex, they are just less likely to use condoms or
any other form of contraception. This helps explain why the United
States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed
world and why at least one in four teen girls has a sexually
transmitted disease. And it’s why every reputable health organization,
including the American Medical Association, has denounced abstinence
only programs as ineffective. By contrast, we know that using
contraception does work – according to the Guttmacher Institute,
publicly funded family planning services help women avoid approximately
1.4 unintended pregnancies a year, pregnancies that would have resulted
in 640,000 unintended births and 600,000 abortions.

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I was thinking about Congressman
Boehner’s disdain for the idea that access to affordable contraception
could ever be considered an economic issue the other day when I was
visiting one of our clinics in North Carolina. A young patient was
gracious enough to allow me to sit in and observe her visit with one of
our clinicians. She was there to get long-acting contraception and
during the discussion the doctor asked her where she was going to
college. She named her targeted schools and said her goal was to double
major with the hope of one day being an occupational therapist. She was
excited for her future and taking responsibility for it at the same
time. As I sat there listening to her, I wished that Congressman
Boehner could pay attention to what she was saying. I think this young
woman could have taught him a thing or two about economics that he has
never had to learn.

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