Inquirer Editorial: Contraceptives can help reduce teen abortion rate

Condoms and contraceptives on sale in a campus vending machine.
Condoms and contraceptives on sale in a campus vending machine. (Shippensburg University)
Posted: March 06, 2013

Abortion remains one of the most divisive issues Americans discuss - if they discuss it. Frequently they don't, because the subject is volatile enough to end friendships.

The argument is over one basic question: When does personhood begin? There may be general agreement that life begins during gestation, but at what point? Upon fertilization? At birth? Or somewhere in between?

Young people, for the most part, don't view abortion the way their parents do, mirroring a generational divide on homosexuality. In states like New Jersey, where abortion has become more common, teenagers aren't surprised to learn someone they know has had an abortion.

A new Guttmacher Institute report on teen pregnancies, births, and abortions, which used federal health data, says New Jersey ranked third nationally in teenage abortions in 2008, with a rate of 30 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19. New York was first, with 37 abortions per 1,000; Delaware was second, with 32.

In teen pregnancies, New Mexico ranked first, with 93 per 1,000 women, and it was 15th in abortions, with 17 per 1,000. Delaware - which, as noted earlier, ranked second in teen abortions - was seventh in teen pregnancies, with 81 per 1,000 women.

New Hampshire had the lowest teen pregnancy rate in the country, with 33 per 1,000 women; its abortion rate was 39th, at nine per 1,000.

Pennsylvania was 36th in teen pregnancies, with 56 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19; and 13th in teen abortions, with 18 per 1,000.

The report says there has been a long-term decline in teenage pregnancies across the nation, which may be attributable largely to an increase in the use of contraceptives.

"It is now the norm for teens to use contraceptives at first sex, which creates a pattern of continued contraceptive use down the road," said Guttmacher senior researcher Laura Lindberg.

It seems logical that fewer teen pregnancies would lead to fewer teen abortions. That assumption seems to be borne out by New Jersey, whose high teen abortion rate might have been even higher had it not experienced the nation's largest drop in teen pregnancies. From 2005 to 2008, its rate dropped 13 percent - from 71 to 62 pregnancies per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19.

If fewer teen pregnancies means fewer teen abortions, and if increased contraceptive use means fewer teen pregnancies, then making contraceptives more available to teens is good public policy. That's something to remember the next time a high school is criticized for making condoms available as part of a public-health program.