Over a recent three-year period, the share of U.S. pregnancies that were unintended fell to the lowest levels in decades, a new study reports.
The unintended pregnancy rate dropped from 51 percent of all pregnancies to 45 percent between 2008 and 2011, Lawrence B. Finer and Mia R. Zolna write in a peer-reviewed paper in The New England Journal of Medicine. It was the first time since 1981 that the share of unintended U.S. pregnancies declined significantly “across all strata of age, income, and race and ethnicity,” the authors note. They attribute the surprising drop to increasing use of contraception across the country.
One reason this is news is that the proportion of unintended pregnancies in the United States is among the highest in the world. For decades, an American woman has been roughly as likely to face an unintended pregnancy as an intended one.
At first glance, this may not seem like important environmental news. (How can it compare, for example, with the fact that renewable energy accounted for a record share of new U.S. electricity generation in 2015?) And the authors of the paper on pregnancy make no mention of the environment. That’s hardly surprising, since Finer and Zolna work for the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health think tank that does not connect such issues to possible environmental outcomes.
At the Worldwatch Institute’s Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA), however, exploring this connection is the essence and purpose of our review of recent scientific literature. If our hypothesis—that family planning contributes to environmental sustainability—is confirmed, then the new Guttmacher Institute study is good environmental news indeed.
The evidence that we’ve collected from hundreds of peer-reviewed papers published since 2005 suggests that the most powerful way that family planning might contribute to environmental sustainability is by leading to less-frequent and/or later childbearing, and hence slower population growth. Assuming that slower population growth is good for the environment—as most U.S. scientists do, although we’ve found the connection challenging to confirm—then only a few steps separate greater use of birth control from at least modest environmental outcomes.
More (and more effective) use of contraception offers a double gift, since unintended pregnancies are by definition not something that women (or, presumably, their sexual partners) are asking for. A good personal outcome—the avoidance of a potentially life-changing unsought pregnancy—also produces broader benefits that ripple out beyond individuals, couples, and families to communities, nations, and the world as a whole. (Just think of the broader impacts of population size on freshwater supplies, conservation of wild lands, and climate change).
All the better, then, that we’re talking about lower birthrates in the United States, whose residents are among the highest emitters of climate-altering carbon dioxide and consumers of natural resources on the planet. As a paper by Paul A. Murtaux and Michael G. Schlax noted in 2009, having a child can result in a “carbon legacy” that might contribute to climate change for generations. Until the United States reduces its per-capita emissions to climate-sustainable levels, this carbon legacy could continue to disproportionately warm the planet for a long time.
The literature that we’ve reviewed in the FPESA project also confirms that the connection between more birth control and less environmental harm is complicated—and enormously sensitive. The main point of using contraception is to realize personal reproductive intentions, not to fulfil a broad environmental obligation. So, not surprisingly, many who work on reproductive health and broader issues of health and rights are uncomfortable about drawing attention to the external (e.g., environmental) benefits of contraception. Some worry that these could be interpreted as more important than the individual’s right to make decisions about avoiding pregnancy or becoming pregnant when one wants to. (See this article from the FPESA project’s upcoming report for our take on this concern.)
Moreover, imbalances in fertility rates, consumption levels, and environmental footprints complicate the population-environment connection within countries as well as between them. Levels of unintended pregnancy, for example, are much higher among younger and low-income women than older and high-income women. (Indeed, Finer and Zolna found greater reductions in unintended pregnancies in the former groups than the latter ones.) Yet the consumption patterns of more-affluent women and couples—and any children they have—undoubtedly contribute more, on a per capita basis, to a range of environmental problems. That relationship somewhat weakens the connection between fewer unintended pregnancies and slower environmental degradation.
Two complicating factors about unintended pregnancy weaken the relationship even more. First, many unintended pregnancies are merely mistimed, not never wanted. So some of the unintended pregnancies that are avoided are likely to result in intended pregnancies in the near future. While this spaces out new births somewhat, it doesn’t mean that the births never happen. Second, only about half of unintended pregnancies result in unplanned births; the rest end in abortion or miscarriage. The Guttmacher authors found that abortion rates stayed relatively constant from 2008 to 2011, while the rate of unplanned births declined significantly as a result of the downward trend in unintended pregnancy. Although their paper does not make an exact calculation, it seems likely that the decline the share of births that were unplanned was at least comparable to the decline in unintended pregnacies.
Despite the sensitivities and complexities of the connection between family planning and the environment, we can still celebrate this recent decline in the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate (assuming that it has continued past the study’s end-date of 2011). Regardless of the impact on the environment, this decline is good news for the individuals involved and for their communities—resulting in less stress, easing financial burdens, and opening up personal opportunities.
Moreover, research suggests that the most powerful way to slow population growth and its environmental impacts—in any country—is to help make births that women and their partners do not seek to have as rare as possible. An unintended pregnancy rate of 45 percent—still nearly half of all pregnancies—remains unconscionable in a country that spends more on health care per capita than any other, according to a recent OECD report. But a 6 percent drop in that rate over just three years is certainly a step in the right direction. And it is, in all probability, good news for the environment—especially if the trend holds or, even better, accelerates.
Robert Engelman is a senior fellow at Worldwatch and director of its Family Planning and Environmental Sustainability Assessment (FPESA).
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