Posted by: Ken Brown | January 25, 2009

Abortion and Teenage Pregnancy By State

For those who have not been following the comments on my recent post on the Freedom of Choice Act, an objection was raised that restrictions on abortion merely trade a lower abortion rate for a higher rate of teenage pregnancy. Now those who believe abortion is murder might think that a reasonable trade–the lesser of two evils and all–but even if so, it is hardly an ideal situation. Better by far would be to reduce both teenage pregnancy and abortion, and a truly pro-life position must not ignore the negative consequences of its actions. Thus N. Adam claims the pro-life acceptance of this trade-off is one more instance of our “caring more about the welfare of the unborn than the born.”

In support of such a claim, it can be pointed out that most of those states with the highest teenage birth rates are in the South, and many of these are Red states. These numbers are a bit skewed, however, by the fact that a high abortion rate can mask a similarly high pregnancy rate. Still, even when comparing overall teenage pregnancy rates, it is clear that the South is not doing well. According to the Guttmach Institute (an arm of Planned Parenthood; figures are for 2000, the latest I can find), the five states with the highest teenage pregnancy rates per 1000 girls are (with Abortion rank and percentage):

1. Nevada: Pregnancy rate 113/1000 (Abortion: 4th highest; 36%)
2. Arizona: 104 (A 19th; 21%)
3. Mississippi: 103 (A 28th; 16%)
4. New Mexico: 103 (A 18th; 22%)
5. Texas: 101 (A 26th; 17%)

Nevertheless, the fact that these are all in the South, and include some states with pro-choice policies (e.g. Guttmacher ranks New Mexico the 6th best for “efforts to help women avoid unplanned pregnancy”) strongly points to a cultural factor–this is clearly not just a matter of access to contraception and abortion or even “Red vs. Blue.” Thus, some very Red and very anti-abortion Midwestern states (like the Dakotas) are among the lowest in pregnancy and birth rates: North Dakota has the best overall teenage pregnancy rate (42/1000) and the 3rd best abortion rate (8%); South Dakota has the 7th best pregnancy rate (54/1000) and the 2nd best abortion rate (7%).

These numbers are also skewed by the fact that abortion restrictions and contraception restrictions (too) often go hand-in-hand, especially in the South. So if we want to get a better idea of the impact of abortion restrictions themselves–and thus the likely impact of FOCA’s passage, which would eliminate all such restrictions–we should instead look at the rankings for highest abortion percentages, and here the claim that increased access to abortion lowers teenage pregnancy rates collapses in ruin. According the Guttmacher Institute’s own numbers, the five states with the highest teenage abortion rates are all among the top 16 highest teenage pregnancy rates, and all are Blue states (with overall teenage pregnancy rank and rate/1000 girls):

1. New Jersey: 47% Abortion rate (Pregnancy rank 16th highest; 90/1000)
2. New York: 46% (P 14th; 91)
3. Maryland: 38% (P 13th; 91)
4. Nevada: 36% (P 1st; 113)
5. California: 36% (P 7th; 96)

Predictably, four of these states have very permissive abortion laws (California, Maryland, New York and New Jersey; Nevada is something of an exception, and in fact is not clearly Blue, though it went for Obama). More surprisingly, and according to Guttmacher, three of the four provide excellent access to contraception and related services: California (1st), New York (5th) and Maryland (12th) are all in Guttmacher’s top 12, though Nevada (34) and New Jersey (43!) get low scores. In other words, these states have some of the best access to abortion and contraception but not only have very high abortion rates (predictably), but also have consistently higher teenage pregnancy rates. In contrast, the five states with the lowest abortion rates are all among those with the 25 lowest teenage pregnancy rates:

46. West Virginia 10% abortion rate (Pregnancy rank 35th; 67/1000)
47. Kentucky 8% (P 25th; 76)
48. North Dakota 8% (P 50th; 42)
49. South Dakota 7% (P 44th; 54)
50. Utah 6% (P 45th; 53)

Note that this does not just measure overall numbers of abortion, but the abortion rate per pregnancy. In other words, Utah, South Dakota and North Dakota are not just low on the list because they have few pregnancies; they have the fewest pregnancies and the smallest percentages of those pregnancies end in abortion. Four of these five states have in place the very laws FOCA would eliminate (West Virginia is the exception).

Now clearly there is much more involved in these differences in teenage pregnancy and abortion rates than a few parental consent laws. There are, very obviously, strong cultural differences that no laws (for or against abortion) can eliminate. Thus, it is often rightly pointed out that, even if criminalized, many women would still seek abortions (though clearly this is more true in certain parts of the country than others). But the opposite is also true: even where abortion is legal, it can remain rare if the culture continues to view it as objectionable (as in parts of the Midwest), and this by no means needs to lead to higher pregnancy rates. In short, and as I have emphasized on numerous occasions, it is not the laws that need fixing so much as people’s hearts and minds. So long as we pretend that casual sex and abortion can be morally neutral and consequence free, we will have states like New Jersey and New York with extremely high abortion and teenage pregnancy rates.

But at the same time, it can hardly be an accident that four of the five states with the highest rates of abortion already have FOCA like laws on the books and yet still are among the worst in teenage pregnancy, while four of the five states with the the lowest abortion rates have the very kinds of laws FOCA would repeal and some of the best rates of teenage pregnancy. All of which renders very problematic the claim that restricting access to abortion inevitably leads to higher rates of teenage pregnancy. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case.


Responses

  1. Ken, you’re posting so much good stuff lately. Keep it up. I’m blogrolling you.

  2. I am pleased that am I providing you with such attractive material, Ken.

    Several things to consider:

    First, low abortion rates and low pregnancy rates may be conjoined based on population density (or any other factor) and have no influence over one another directly.

    New Jersey has the highest population density in the US, Maryland has the fifth, New York has the sixth, and California has the eleventh (which is very high considering California is the third largest state by area).

    South Dakota, North Dakota, New Mexico, and Utah are all in the lowest ten in terms of population density.

    Second, is it possible that people may be doing some interstate traveling to have abortions? A state like Nevada has an economy that is almost entirely tourist based.

    Thirdly, might it be the case that better access to contraception is an effect–rather than a cause–of the the problem?

  3. Ken, if I may offer a suggestion…

    N. Adam claimed (I believe) that essentially, “parental consent/notification requirements quite necessarily increases the rate of teenage pregnancy.”

    Perhaps looking at data within states over time rather than comparing the rates of different states may serve to control for the extraneous factors–population density, interstate travel, etc.–that N. Adam mentions. I don’t have the time at the moment to look it up myself, but it may be interesting to check *when* exactly the “pro-choice” states enacted legislation similar to the FOCA, and when the “anti-abortion” states enacted the opposite kind of legislation.

    It would support your point if pregnancy rates rose after FOCA-like legislation was enacted in ‘pro-choice’ states, and fell after ‘anti-abortion’ states enacted the opposite sort of legislation. If, on the other hand, those states you mentioned experienced a decline in teen pregnancy rates following FOCA, that would support N. Adams’ point.

  4. There are so many ways to look at the Guttmacher statistics. Here’s another issue I brought up a while back–when abstinence-only education was being debated: in which states did abortion and teen pregnancy go down? There are liberals who like to say Bush’s abstinence-only sex ed didn’t work when he was governor of Texas, but here’s how I responded, using the 2000 Guttmacher stats:

    “First, at least teenage pregnancy rates went down under Governor Bush. From what I can see from the Alan Guttmacher Institute’s own statistics, they did not decline under Democratic Governor Ann Richards, whose daughter currently heads Planned Parenthood.”

    Of course, they also went down in California, but then I’d just focus on California still having a high number, notwithstanding its comprehensive sex education.

    BTW, why hasn’t Guttmacher released new statistics yet? It’s been nine years!

  5. David,
    Thanks! I hope you are settling in well after the move!

    N. Adam,
    I am pleased that am I providing you with such attractive material, Ken.

    Touche.

    Several things to consider…

    Those complications are all relevant and important, but I’m not trying to prove causation here, only trying to show that the causation you claimed is not “necessarily” the case.

    Jeb,
    Perhaps looking at data within states over time rather than comparing the rates of different states may serve to control for the extraneous factors–population density, interstate travel, etc.–that N. Adam mentions.

    I agree and I plan to look into it, though it may take some doing, and in any case would be open to its own set of confounding factors. For a start, you can try this, but it only measures change in abortion rate by state; it does not compare that with pregnancy rate.

    James,
    why hasn’t Guttmacher released new statistics yet? It’s been nine years!

    They have released some more recent numbers, but nothing with the kind of detail needed for this analysis. They do seem to take their time about it, don’t they? Even the 2000 numbers were only released in late 2006.

  6. Those complications are all relevant and important, but I’m not trying to prove causation here, only trying to show that the causation you claimed is not “necessarily” the case.

    Well, jeb hit it right on the head. However low a single state’s abortion-teen pregnancy rate is relative to a different state is not entirely irrelevant, but hardly suggestive enough to debunk my previous claim. One would either need “before and after” results in the same state (within the same cultural generation, I would imagine) or two states within the same region (like Vermount and Maine or North Dakota and South Dakota). To disprove my claim, it would only have to be demonstrated once, but to prove your greater point you would have to establish a trend. Which gets me to my next point.

    While attempting to debunk my claim, I would caution against opening yourself up to debunking in the meantime. Playing with statistics is like playing with fire. I recall myself recently assumed, as I often am, by Ann Coulter’s latest book tour, during which she states that 70% of all runaways come from single parent households. Well, I thought to myself, if there were only two parent households, 100% of the runaways would come from them. Which, naturally, got me thinking of the South Park episode were all the parents in South Park discovered that they–not random strangers–were the ones most likely to abduct their own children; absurdity ensues when, in order to protect their children from statistical abduction, they willingly leave the kids to fend for themselves. Trend carefully, my friend (pun intended).

  7. N. Adam,
    I agree with that, and am reminded of the aphorism:

    There’s lies, there’s damn lies, and then there’s statistics.

    Still, it is not as though I were making extravagant claims based on this (admittedly) spotty data. Recall my conclusions:

    “Now clearly there is much more involved in these differences in teenage pregnancy and abortion rates than a few parental consent laws. There are, very obviously, strong cultural differences that no laws (for or against abortion) can eliminate….

    All of which renders very problematic the claim that restricting access to abortion inevitably leads to higher rates of teenage pregnancy. If anything, the opposite seems to be the case.”

    Certainly that last line is debatable–which is why I only said it “seems” to be the case–but it is not unjustifiable.

  8. Thanks for sharing this post with us..Yeah I read some related articles and the highest percentage that teen pregnancy is growing is int he Africa.

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