Unplanned pregnancies rise among poor women

The rate is four times that of higher-income women, a new survey reports.

Overall, the rate of unintended pregnancy - 49 percent of all pregnancies - has remained stable in the United States, according to newly released government data.

But when broken down by income, disparities emerge: In 2001, US women living below the federal poverty line were four times as likely to have an unplanned pregnancy, five times as likely to have an unplanned birth, and more than three times as likely to have an abortion as women with income at least double the poverty line ($9,800). And these disparities are growing, reports the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research organization formerly affiliated with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1994, poor women were three times as likely as higher-income women to have an unplanned pregnancy.

The primary source of these data is the just-issued National Survey of Family Growth, a survey of more than 7,600 women, conducted in 2002. It is run by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The most recent previous such survey was conducted in 1995.

At a time when abortion remains a focus of social activists across the political spectrum, some have sought to find common ground in the effort to reduce the number of abortions. Preventing unwanted pregnancy means fewer abortions, they say. But the issue of contraception - especially among teens - can be just as controversial, and so little cooperation exists between the opposing camps.

On Wednesday, Democratic Sens. Harry Reid of Nevada and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York marked the fifth annual National Day to Prevent Teen Pregnancy by highlighting legislation - the Prevention First Act - that would increase federal funding for reproductive health services. But while Senator Clinton often likes to put a bipartisan face on much of her legislation, no Republicans stood with her and the minority leader.

The authors of a new Guttmacher article focusing on disparities of unintended pregnancy rates, who also identify gaps according to race and education levels, see a social justice dimension to the trends. The much higher rates of unintended pregnancy among poor women "indicate that some groups of women have more difficulty than others in achieving their reproductive goals," write Lawrence Finer and Stanley Henshaw in the June issue of the magazine Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. "Assessing these disparities may help policymakers and public health professionals identify these groups of women."

In an interview, Mr. Finer notes that the federal Title X program, which subsidizes women's health clinics across the country, has experienced an annual decline in funding during the Bush years, when the figures are adjusted for inflation.

Though no Title X funds are used to pay for abortions, "there's concern that when federal money is funneled into clinics, it frees up other money to promote abortion services," says Randall O'Bannon of the National Right to Life Committee's educational branch.

For those focusing on preventing teen pregnancy, the news remains positive. Teen pregnancy and birth rates continue to decline, and are at their lowest levels, at least according to the available statistics, which go back several decades. But in a report released this week, also analyzing the data from the new National Survey of Family Growth, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, highlighted some areas of concern:

• Almost one-third of all sexually experienced girls ages 15 to 19 have been pregnant and 13 percent of sexually experienced teenage boys have caused a pregnancy. The definition of "sexually experienced" is those who have had sexual intercourse at least once.

• More than half (52 percent) of sexually experienced Hispanic teen girls have been pregnant and 21 percent of sexually experienced Hispanic teen boys have caused a pregnancy.

But teen pregnancy has declined overall because teens have delayed the start of sexual activity and have used birth control more effectively, among other factors.

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