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Diane Mufson: Everyone benefits from free birth control

Oct. 17, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

There are many controversial concepts that people believe but cannot prove. Therefore, when it comes to matters of health and safety, quantitative and verifiable data is vital.

A study of 9,000 women just published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis highlights the impact of free birth control. The results show that providing free birth control substantially reduced unplanned pregnancies and abortions.

Birth control is an emotionally linked area. Some people, for religious or other reasons, believe that only "natural" or rhythm birth control methods are acceptable. For those willing to responsibly and independently raise children born of this method, that is fine. But that fact remains that many babies are not only unplanned but also unwanted, and abortion is still and has always been used as a method to terminate pregnancies.

Most American women approve of birth control, but many find it expensive or problematic to obtain. This summer CBS reported a national health statistics study of over 12,000 women that found close to 40 percent of pregnancies between 2006 and 2010 were unplanned; this statistic has remained stable over the past three decades.

The most recent study at Washington University clearly shows that given the choice of any kind of birth control, about 75 percent opted for long-lasting forms, and not ones that require daily action, such as "the pill."

Women were more likely to select IUDs (intrauterine devices) or implants, which are more expensive. While older IUDs were problematic for some, newer ones are considered effective and much safer.

Abortion rates for those in this study offering free birth control showed dramatic declines. They decreased 62 to 78 percent.

Other impressive results pertain to teenagers. The birth rate of girls 15-19 in this study was 6.3 per 1,000 while the national rate for the same age group is over 34 per 1,000. Given good information and options, teenagers clearly show they want to delay motherhood.

For a number of years, the birth control pill has been the most widely used form of contraception. While it can be highly effective, it also has some failures, probably largely due to human error. After all, having to remember to fill a prescription regularly and take a medication daily on a schedule when one is not sick requires a high degree of planning. It would be interesting to see just how many men would adhere to such a schedule.

There are indications that many people are much more likely to plan for short-term events such as taking vacations or attending sporting events than plan for pregnancy and children in their lives.

Removing the necessity to take action every day or for each instance of sexual activity might change the entire scenario of pregnancy, birth and abortion. When having a baby is desired, women are more likely to seek earlier and better prenatal care and be more positively involved with their babies following delivery. When teenagers delay motherhood, there is a better chance for economic and emotional stability for all involved.

Dr. Jeff Peipert, primary author of the Washington University study, stated "Unintended pregnancy remains a major health problem in the United States, with higher proportions among teenagers and women with less education and lower economic status. The results of this study demonstrate that we can reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy, and this is key to reducing abortions in this country." It truly is a no-brainer; everyone benefits from free and effective birth control.

Diane W. Mufson is a licensed psychologist. She is a former citizen member of The Herald-Dispatch editorial board and a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch editorial page. Her email is dwmufson@comcast.net.

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