Want to save babies? Focus on improving women’s health, not picketing Planned Parenthood

Family planning is an important part of women’s health. And reproductive health includes access to abortion that I believe should be safe, legal, and rare. I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to bring down the rate of abortions. And it has been my experience that good family planning and good medical care brings down the rate of abortion. Keeping women and men in ignorance and denied the access to services actually increases the rate of abortion. — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Testimony before House Foreign Affairs Committee, 2009

It wasn’t too long ago that I stumbled upon an anti-abortion protest outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic that was across the street from my shopping destination. Even though I adamantly disagree with the protesters and doubt that they understand all of the non-abortion services that Planned Parenthood provides, I think their hearts were in the right place. They want to protect fetuses that they consider to be babies.

To further their efforts, pro-life groups have fought to pass anti-abortion laws (which are frequently overturned in court as unconstitutional, most famously in Planned Parenthood v. Casey) and opened crisis pregnancy centers that show ultrasound images to pregnant women (a tactic proven to be ineffective at reducing induced abortions).

I’d like to suggest that if their real goal is to save the lives of babies in the USA — both born and unborn — they might want to focus their energies elsewhere.

Good news/bad news from the USA

First, the good news from the USA. In 2011, induced abortion rates in the United States fell to their lowest since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Another good sign is a declining infant mortality rate…reported at 6.05 deaths before the first birthday per 1,000 live births in 2011, which was a 12 percent drop from 2005. So we’re getting a little better at this. The bad news is that better is still not very good by international standards.

In 2008, the United States ranked 27th in infant mortality rate among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, and a previous report linked the United States’ relatively unfavorable infant mortality ranking to its higher percentage of preterm births. Despite the recent infant mortality decline, comparing the 2011 U.S. infant mortality rate with the 2008 international rankings would still have the United States ranked 27th. — U.S. Centers for Disease Control and prevention, NCHS Data Brief, April 2013 (emphasis added)

 

Not getting much value

US not getting much value

Despite spending more than any other nation on earth for health care per capita, the United States (depicted on the far righthand side of the chart) still lags behind many other countries in terms of infant mortality and abortion rates. Although the United States is not the worst performer on the list in terms of abortion and infant mortality, countries like Mexico and Estonia spend far less on health care per person. Please note that lower numbers for all variables always indicate better performance in this chart.

But is more health spending the answer? A quick glance at the data would suggest not, since the United States has the highest health care spending on earth, both in real dollars and as a percentage of gross domestic product.

In terms of the unborn, even though the U.S. abortion rate is dropping, it’s still too high. In 2008, the United States reported a rate of 20 induced abortions per 1,000 women ages 15-44. Germany, the top performing country, reported only 7.

What’s interesting is the inverse correlation between restrictive abortion laws and the number of abortions…especially the number of unsafe abortions. That is, the more restrictive a country’s abortion laws are, the more abortions occur. And they are of the unsafe, back-alley variety that endangers women’s lives.

Although the legal status of abortion and risk associated with the procedure are not perfectly correlated, it is well documented that morbidity and mortality resulting from abortion tend to be high in countries and regions characterized by restrictive abortion laws, and is very low when these are liberal…We found that the proportion of women living under liberal abortion laws is inversely associated with the abortion rate in the subregions of the world. — Sedgh, G. et al. “Induced abortion: incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008,” from The Lancet, 2012

It’s worth pointing out that the study classifies the U.S. as having liberal abortion laws, but obviously the people picketing outside of Planned Parenthood are hoping to change that.

So what’s a country to do?

Just because the United States spends more on health care by far than any other nation in the world doesn’t mean we’ve been spending the money very wisely. Indeed 31 percent of U.S. healthcare spending is on administrative costs.

But Sedgh, G. and colleagues offer an idea.

Other studies have found that abortion incidence is inversely associated with the level of contraceptive use, especially where fertility rates are holding steady, and there is a positive correlation between unmet need for contraception and abortion levels. — Sedgh, G. et al. “Induced abortion: incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008,” from The Lancet, 2012

And if you don’t believe that, there’s this:

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has calculated that funding which provides modern contraceptive services in developing countries ($7.1 billion in 2003) prevents 187 million unintended pregnancies, 60 million unplanned births, 105 million induced abortions, 22 million spontaneous abortions, and 215,000 pregnancy-related deaths each year. — John Lomoy, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Fortunately, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (that is, Obamacare) goes a long way in improving access to contraception and other women’s preventive health programs that can also reduce infant mortality rates.

Cutting through the clutter

Unfortunately for a lot of born and unborn babies, the pro-life crowd has spread a lot of misinformation about the impact of the Affordable Care Act’s women’s preventive health provisions.

To be clear, Obamacare does not provide any funding for abortions, nor does any other federal program due to the Hyde Amendment. Even the Medicaid funds that Planned Parenthood receives are specifically for the non-abortion services it provides…just like any other health provider that provides these services.

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc. case in which Hobby Lobby argued that the law’s required coverage of emergency contraception (Plan B and Ella) violated their religious beliefs, and they should not be required to include it in their employees’ insurance plans. Pro-life groups have inaccurately referred to Plan B and Ella as abortifacients, probably for political reasons. In reality, even traditional birth control pills can prevent implantation in the uterus (not just conception), so the distinction is totally made up.

What’s the real story?

It is hard to say precisely what is prompting the pro-life movement to back policies that are so counterproductive to reducing the number of abortions, infant mortality and deaths among pregnant women. I have a few hypotheses:

  1. An overly simplistic view of policy. If you tell someone that something they abhor is legal, the intuitive response would be to say, “We should try to change that law” because they don’t want it to happen anymore. Of course, sometimes reality is counterintuitive. When abortion is not legal, desperate women still get abortions…it’s just that they are of the unsafe, back-alley variety. Conservatives who oppose gun control measures should understand this line of reasoning: if you make performing an abortion a crime, then only criminals will perform abortions.
  2. Unspoken motivations. Access to contraception and abortion has been a major step forward for the rights of women, and conservatives tend to be uncomfortable with that. Sure, the early feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed abortion, but the abortions they opposed were unsafe and coerced by men. They had no concept of abortion in the way we think of it today as a safe medical procedure initiated by the woman.
  3. Political wedge issues. Politics is a very ugly business sometimes, and if you can portray your opponents are murderers, that’s pretty effective. That’s precisely what the GOP has done with the abortion issue, and religious conservatives have overwhelmingly rewarded them for it, often voting against their economic interests to vote for pro-life candidates.

Don’t fall for it. The data shows overwhelmingly the pro-life crowd is (perhaps unintentionally) harming the babies they claim to cherish.

2 thoughts on “Want to save babies? Focus on improving women’s health, not picketing Planned Parenthood

  1. We don’t have to vote for Republicans in order to get abortion laws changed. They haven’t done it so far. I intend to keep searching for those pro-life Democrat candidates that will have the courage to speak up for the rights of the not yet born. I know they are out there. Isn’t human rights the premise of the party in the first place? These are the most innocent of us all.

    • I don’t want the abortion laws changed. Polls show that the majority of Americans are pro-choice, and I’m one of them. Because then we will just go back to the days of women performing DIY abortions with coat hangers, potentially killing both the mother and the fetus. A woman should get to choose what happens in her own body, period. Plus, as the research demonstrates, countries with stricter abortion laws actually have MORE abortions. They’re just illegal and unsafe. Abortion laws won’t stop abortions. When women are that desperate, they will terminate their pregnancies one way or another. They were doing it before Roe v. Wade. And banning abortions would do little if anything to actually prevent them. It would just make them unsafe. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/12/world/12abortion.html?_r=0

      But if we improve access to contraception and prenatal care as well as helping women more after they give birth, a lot more women will not feel like they HAVE TO have abortions. They will not be so desperate. But, of course, that will cost taxpayers money, and Republicans don’t like to spend money on anything.

      Like Hillary Clinton said — “safe, legal, and rare.”

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