Abortion Rates and Contraception
Correlation Is not Causation

John Stonestreet
February 20, 2014
Reproduced with Permission

According to a recently announced study by the Guttmacher Institute, abortion rates in the United States have dropped to their lowest rate since 1973, that's the year Roe v. Wade created a constitutional right to abortion.

While a decline in abortion rates is of course good news, the explanations for the decline leave a great deal to be desired.

According to the study, the abortion rate has dropped from the 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44 in 1981 to 16.9 per 1,000 in 2011. In 1973, the rate was 16.3.

According to the lead author of the study, Rachel Jones, there was no "evidence that the national decline in abortions during this period was the result of new state abortion restrictions," or "a drop in the number of abortion providers during this period."

In its discussion of the findings, the study's authors speculated that one factor behind the drop might be "the uptake of more effective contraceptive methods," especially among younger women.

Not surprisingly, many commentators, including Andrew Sullivan and William Saletan at Slate, were quick to draw the connection between contraception and lower abortion rates. Piers Morgan even called it "incontrovertible science." We've heard that one plenty of times, haven't we?

But folks, what all of these commentators fail to mention is that correlation is not necessarily causation.

As Michael New noted at National Review Online, the study acknowledged that "contraception use did not increase between 2008 and 2011."

What's more, as New noted, "gains in contraception use do not always result in reductions in unintended pregnancies. In fact, that rate has remained fairly steady over the long term, despite increases in contraception use."

Other proposed explanations include the "slow economy" and the "recovering economy."

Just about the only explanation not being proffered is the well-documented shift in public attitudes toward abortion. Since 2009, a majority of Americans have identified themselves as "pro-life" when asked by Gallup. However they define "pro-life," it's reasonable to ask whether this shift in attitudes has had an impact on the abortion rate.

And it's necessary to understand why the rate has dropped. After all, there are lots of ways to bring down the abortion rate that aren't moral. The ethical considerations surrounding birth control, which for Christians are significant, are too often overlooked and dismissed as uniquely Catholic concerns.

And that's why I get nervous when I hear prominent evangelicals embrace contraception as anti-abortion measures merely on the grounds of utility. That kind of thinking can be and is often dangerous. After all, we could forcibly sterilize all teenagers and end teen pregnancy, but no right-thinking person would advocate that. Why is handing out condoms and giving out free birth control pills to people any less problematic?

What's more, the evidence for "more contraception/less abortion" isn't as compelling as people make it out to be. If you examine the larger trends, it was the introduction and increased use of birth control in the mid-to-late 1960s that was accompanied by a large spike in abortions and out-of-wedlock births.

So what we're seeing now is a small decrease in the abortion rate over the past two or three years.

Saying that increased contraception use - which, as Michael New points out, did not occur in the period in question- has resulted in fewer abortions selectively uses convenient evidence while ignoring a great deal of inconvenient evidence.

It also ignores the gains made by the pro-life cause. For Christians to embrace contraception as an alternative to abortion is, to put it mildly, premature and unwarranted. And ethically shortsighted. Yes, fewer abortions is a step in the right direction. But it's sexual wholeness, and the dignity of every human being, that's the goal that we're after.