Following the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, the country has been laser-focused on abortion, from companies paying women thousands of dollars to have them to statewide votes on the issue. But instead of narrowing our national discussion to what happens after an unplanned pregnancy, we should dedicate time to what comes before.
About 45 percent of all pregnancies are unplanned. And while some parents might be thrilled by an unexpected blessing, many are not — 40 percent of unplanned pregnancies result in an abortion. Unwanted pregnancy is a solemn occurrence no matter one’s beliefs on the legality or morality of abortion. A woman faces a profound decision, bodily changes, relationship strain and medical needs, and a baby faces a very uncertain future, or worse.
Whenever our leaders get around to addressing the causes of unintended pregnancy, we hear a familiar suggestion: increasing access to contraceptives. It’s a fine suggestion; many Republicans have fought to make contraceptives available over the counter (which Democrats have opposed, helping health insurers reap payments). But improving access seems somewhat beside the point.
Why? Well, contraceptives are already around. Medicaid and Title X both provide access to contraceptives for low-income women. The data show this — 89 percent of women living in poverty use some form of contraception. And Obamacare mandated that insurance plans cover birth control.
And, despite broad access, contraceptive use is not very consistent. Of unplanned pregnancies, about 52 percent occur in women who did not use contraception and 43 percent occur in women who used contraception incorrectly. There is no evidence that increased access to birth control in Obamacare changed use. If anything, abortion rates fell before Obamacare was enacted and increased (slightly) afterward. This would indicate less effective contraceptive use, despite increased access.
If we want to reduce unwanted pregnancies, we need to look deeper.
A tempting solution is to improve our society’s delayed gratification problem generally, not just regarding unsafe sex but fatty foods, mindless entertainment, drinking, pornography, gambling and so on. Delayed gratification is the basis of civilization, after all. Philosopher Edmund Burke observed, “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”
But often, women saying “yes” in a sexual relationship is not about their immediate gratification. It’s about going along — making a boyfriend happy or coming off as socially normal. The desire to be liked (or loved) can reflect a lack of self-assurance. Women with low self-esteem tend to engage in higher-risk sexual behaviors (such as unprotected sex with multiple partners). And teenage girls with lower self-esteem are more likely to engage in sexual activity.
Preventing unwanted pregnancy, then, should focus on lifting up women and instilling confidence. Studies have long shown that women generally have lower self-esteem than men. But interestingly, a relatively recent study found that women in poorer nations without sex equality had similar self-esteem levels as men, but women in egalitarian, Western societies had lower self-esteem than men. One possible explanation is that women in developing nations can entirely dedicate themselves to a vocation — and compare themselves to women. In contrast, women in Western countries must thrive on multiple fronts and can feel they lack the time and energy to fully invest in anything.
The lesson here is not that we need to implement pre-“Mad Men” social norms. But we’ve clearly lost sight of what an empowered woman is, and indeed we’ve lost sight of what a woman is. Instead of helping women find and dedicate themselves to a calling — vocation, family life, community and faith — our society has adopted the opposite approach. We shrug off commitment and dedication as oppressive rather than recognizing that healthy people, like healthy trees, are firmly rooted.
Our current societal experiment will have many casualties. We should count among them the unplanned pregnancies in a generation of women who have been lied to — who have been told that freedom means abandoning your nature and that connection and happiness can be built without commitment and dedication.
Women deserve better.