Lack of Access to Birth Control Hampers US International Competiveness

Last week Rush Limbaugh said of Sandra Fluke, “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it.” Well guess what? You are getting something for it. You are getting the chance to remain economically competitive with other developed nations that have been giving women the support they need to control their fertility. Those nations have seen their accidental pregnancy rates fall by more than 29% (from 1995 to 2008) while those in the US have continued to climb.

It is time to instill some cold hard facts into the contraception debates that seem to persist despite any rational justification for denying men and women the means to control their fertility.  Are you ready to hear this?

One out of every two pregnancies in the US involve women who do not want to be pregnant with that child -- 3.2 million unintended pregnancies in 2006 alone.

That rate of unintended pregnancy in the US is higher than in Africa (39%), Asia (38%), Oceania (37%) and Northern (41%), Western (42%) and Southern Europe (39%).

Despite recent claims to the contrary, the US is very much like the Soviet Union with Eastern Europe’s accidental pregnancy rate (48%) falling just below that in the US.

The rate measured as the number of unplanned pregnancies per 1000 women (ages 15-44) among poor women is significantly higher in the US than the highest rates in the world – 132 pregnancies among women at or below the poverty level in the US compared to 118 for all women in Eastern Africa and 94 for all women in Middle Africa.

The over-all unintended birth rate has increased by even more than the unintended pregnancy rate with 43% of unintended pregnancies ended in abortion in 2006, down from 47% in 2001, a change that has been attributed to decreased access to abortion and increased stigmatization of abortion.

These over-time and international comparisons matter. There are very real macroeconomic costs to having high unintended pregnancy rates, particularly when it comes to the competitiveness of the US workforce.

A few examples include:

Lower worker productivity: Because children who were unwanted by their mothers are significantly more likely to be born into a family that is living in poverty (only 10% of unintended births were to women living on more than double the poverty level income in 2006). Increases in unintended pregnancy rates mean that over time the share of children being born into poverty is increasing in the US. Children born into poverty are more likely to have poor health outcomes and lower educational achievement leading to lower, average, worker productivity overall.

Higher incarceration rates: Research has found that even after controlling for income, age, education, and maternal health, children who were born to mothers who did not want to become pregnant and were unable to have abortions were more likely to engage in criminal behavior (including violent crimes) and have poorer economic outcomes. High incarceration rates not only cost taxpayers dollars but also decreases the workforce participation rate and affect the lifetime productivity offenders.

Lower investment in human capital: The biggest increase in women having unplanned births are women between the ages of 20 and 24; between 2001 and 2006 the percentage of births in this group that were unplanned increased from 47% to 56%. These remarkably high rates among women in this age has very real impacts on rate at which the nation develops human capital with long run implications for economic growth.

It seems that macroeconomic outcomes, i.e., GDP growth, don’t really matter to the policy makers and pundits who want to restrict access to birth control. They presumably sleep better at night believing that they are helping to reduce promiscuity (they aren’t) even if it does mean a lower standard of living for everyone in the future.

Seriously though, is that what people really want?

If you are interested in reading more on unplanned pregnancies globally you might be interested in reading Unplanned Pregnancies Are a Global Issue.


Finer, Lawrence B.  and Mia R. Zolna (2011). “Unintended pregnancy in the United States: incidence and disparities, 2006.” Contraception Vol. 84 (5): pp 478-485.

Singh, Susheela, Gilda Sedgh, and Rubina Hussain (2010). “Unintended Pregnancy: Worldwide Levels, Trends, and Outcomes.” Studies in Family Planning. Vol . 41(4).

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