Detroit Free Press
May 23, 2014
By Nancy Kaffer, Detroit Free Press columnist
Want to know what a failure of public policy looks like?
In 2006, the State of Michigan spent $5 million to fund family planning and contraception. In 2013, it was $692,300, according to a report from the Detroit News this week. And while the state cut funding for women’s health by a devastating 99%, the abortion rate in Michigan’s poorest city soared to three times the state rate.
If you are opposed to abortion rights, asking lawmakers to restore this funding should be your top priority. Because there is no surer way to reduce the number of abortions performed in this city, state or country than to lower the number of unwanted, unplanned pregnancies.
And it’s time for anti-abortion-rights groups that oppose contraception, and funding for same, to admit that they’re part of the problem.
But here in these United States, we’re living in some kind of alternaverse in which groups that claim to be concerned with the sanctity of life urge governments to slash essential public health funding to our most vulnerable residents, blithely oblivious to the devastating impact on the lives they claim to cherish.
In 2012, the pregnancies of 31% Detroiters were terminated, according to the News’ analysis of state data, compared to 12.6% statewide. The state rate has declined, as has the national rate. But not Detroit’s.
Part of the problem, a nonpartisan group that works to reduce teen pregnancy rates told the News, is that in our national dialogue, abortion and contraception are often linked. To suggest, as some anti-abortion-rights groups do, that contraception aborts a pregnancy is not only medically inaccurate, it’s incredibly damaging to public health policy.
Lots of Americans have conflicted feelings about abortion. That’s OK. It’s a complicated, painful, personal choice — and it must remain a safe, legal choice. But when it comes to contraception, American women are all in. Something like 99% of us use contraception at some point during our reproductive years, according to the Guttmacher Insitute, which collects such statistics. If you doubt their research, look around you. My grandfather was the youngest of 13, my grandmother the youngest of seven. Families just don’t look like that any more.
But access to contraception, particularly the most reliable methods, depends on access to health care. And that kind of access — to doctors, to affordable prescription drugs, even to basic health information — is something that folks who live in poverty must struggle to obtain.
Between 2008 and 2012, 38.1% of Detroiters lived in poverty, according to the U.S. census, compared to the statewide rate of 16.3%. The median household income in Detroit during that same period was $26,955; statewide, it was $48,471. The city has the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the state.
It doesn’t help that Michigan doesn’t mandate sex education in public schools. While programs offered must stress abstinence, they’re not required to cover contraception. It’s obvious that abstinence is the best way to avoid pregnancy, intended or otherwise, it’s also true that states that require abstinence-only sex education have the highest teen pregnancy rates.
So when you cut the state’s most vulnerable women and girls off from access to the information and tools that help prevent unwanted pregnancies — the kind of access those of us with insurance take for granted — what do you expect?
The messages we send to kids about sex and responsible sexual activity are deeply skewed, said Lori Lamerand, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Mid and South Michigan. “We are still giving young women the message that on some level, it's better not to plan to be sexually active and end up pregnant, than to plan it, because then you’re a slut.”
One small South Carolina town tamped down its teen pregnancy rate by adding contraceptive education to its school curriculum, National Public Radio reported earlier this year, and by emphasizing responsibility for safe sex to both genders.
Family planning dollars were slashed during the state’s recession, but such cuts are shortsighted, Lamerand said. Not only is there a direct linkage between cuts to family planning funding and an increase in unwanted pregnancies, “a dollar spent on family planning this year saves more than $4 next year in Medicaid costs alone.” In 2008, 65% of unplanned pregnancies end up with both mother and child on Medicaid.
It’s unlikely that Michigan will change its stance on sex education. There’s also no sign that the upcoming state budget will restore any of that funding, Lamerand said.
And so, in Michigan’s poorest places, we’ll continue to see the number of unwanted pregnancies — and unwanted abortions — rise.
Right to life, indeed.
June 11, 2014