Teen Abortion Rates — Fact vs. Spin

There was much tut-tutting last week when data came out from the Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood — but despite its pedigree the most comprehensive source of data on issues relating to abortion most of the time) showing that the pregnancy and abortion rates for teenagers had increased in 2006 for the first time in over a decade. This fit will with two stories which people had been itching to tell:

1) Those opposed to abstinence-based sex ed in schools have been eagerly waiting for some sort of data to support the claim that not pushing contraception in school was resulting in more teen pregnancy and abortion. (The previous, much trumpeted, round in this debate ony really succeeded in proving that abstinence-based sex ed was no more effective than contraception-based.)

2) A small subset of progressive pro-lifers have been very eager to find a way to claim that Bush’s policies increased abortion, while progressive policies (even combined with pro-choice policies) would decrease abortions. Indeed, some have already attempted to make this claim, though the data on which they attemped to base the argument turned out to be incorrect.

So what are we really seeing with this latest data?

The full research report, including tables, can be found here. The number of pregnancies per 1000 sexually active teenagers (15-19 year-olds) increased for the first time since rates peaked in 1990. The increase itself was not that great — a hair under 3%. Still, this hasn’t happened since 1990, so it is news. The cause, however, if much less clear. Abstinence-only sex ed programs were instituted under Clinton, and grew under Bush, so it seems hard to blame them for an increase in pregnancies which didn’t show up until 2006. It may be that this is simply coordinated with a wider trend: Overall American women gave birth more in 2006 than 2005, with increases in the birth rates for both unmarried and married women.

As for whether this is an example of conservative policies increasing abortions, there’s really nothing here to substantiate this. The pregnancy rate for sexually active teenagers increased by 2.8% (148.6 to 152.8 per 1000) while the birth rate increased by 3.5%. The increase in the sheer number of pregnancies resulted in a 1% increase in the abortion rate (abortions per 1000 women aged 15-19) but the percentage of teen pregnancies ending in abortion decreased from 32% to 31.5%.

While the number of abortions in the US remains appallingly high, it seems reasonable to say that so long as the percentage of pregnancies ending in abortion continues to decline, that pro-lifers are making progress in changing hearts and minds.

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