Abortion & Birth Control: How Humans Actually Behave

There’s belief and there’s science. When it comes to sexuality, American public policy is terribly prejudiced toward the first, while too often ignoring the second.

Election season invariably exaggerates this unfortunate tendency. And so, for example, people actually fear that gay soldiers will be humping while being shot at. Or that they’ll seduce straight soldiers in the shower—who will be powerless to just say no. Love that close-order drill!

New data about pregnancy, contraception, and abortion were just released. While I don’t expect this to influence too many decision-makers, when considered together these facts are intriguing:

* Reducing the cost of an abortion through health insurance or government coverage does NOT increase the number of abortions.

As a recent report shows, “Insurance coverage for abortion is not a significant driver of the incidence of abortion, any more than insurance coverage of pregnancy-related care drives the number of babies born each year.”

This reality is already demonstrated in countries with generous coverage for abortion in their national health plans. In the Netherlands and Germany, for example, where almost all abortions are free for citizens, abortion rates are less than half of ours. And in Canada, which has 1) no national restrictions on abortion and 2) a comprehensive national health system, the abortion rate is much lower than ours.

* The highest teen birth rates in the U.S. are clustered in the South.

This isn’t just a function of race or ethnicity, either. Recent data shows, for example, that Latino teen birthrates ranged from 31.1 in Maine to 188.3 in Alabama. Similarly, birthrates for white teens ranged from 4.3 per 1,000 in the District of Columbia to 54.8 births per 1,000 in Mississippi.

So what is it about the South? Religion. Guilt. More religion. And an almost complete lack of comprehensive sexuality education in school.

By contrast, in countries with serious sex education such as Holland and Sweden, their rate of unwanted teen pregnancy is dramatically lower than ours.
* * * * * * *
Ignorance and obstacles never stop people from having sex, unwanted pregnancies, or abortions. This is so well-established you’d think that more policy-makers and voters would have caught on by now. But when it comes to sex, Americans believe information is dangerous and choice invites irresponsibility. We don’t trust our kids or our neighbors.

Our country expresses this mistrust by shooting itself collectively in the foot. Too many kids having sex? Tell them Jesus disapproves, so when they have sex they’ll feel guilty and unable to use birth control. Too many teen pregnancies? Withhold information and support for using contraception so more kids will get pregnant. Too many abortions? Make them illegal and expensive, so people will have dangerous ones later in their pregnancies.

America’s public policy around sex is completely out of touch with reality. It looks like, say, Seattle building roads engineered for a desert climate, or New York building skyscrapers without elevators.

The belief: if we just wish hard enough, things we don’t like will go away (some people call this “prayer”). Teens will stop having sex, people having sex will stop getting pregnant, and pregnant people will stop getting abortions. If we just wish hard enough.

There are entire industries (led by civic “leaders”) whose sole purpose is keeping Americans ignorant and superstitious. Since 1973, the Religious Right has knowingly been spreading lies about how sex education leads to sex, and abortion leads to depression and cancer. It’s a dramatic example of belief triumphing over science.

Forty years after Roe v Wade, Sarah Palin and her proud clones are continuing the same lying tradition, although with a new twist. Somehow Palin’s unmarried pregnant daughter (who became an unmarried mother) has been positioned as heroic—but as an exception. Other girls who get pregnant are still sluts, especially if they don’t have TV contracts and millionaire parents.

If Americans valued science as much as they value a touchdown or reality TV, there wouldn’t be much of a culture war. We have the world’s best Constitution to help us sort out most public policy questions. A few serious public conversations with budget and other outcome data could resolve most of the rest.

Then we could rationally discuss the values on which we want to base our policies. Instead, Americans argue about what we “believe,” abetted by organized religion, an Oprah-ized, feel-good psychology of entitlement, and “news” shows that ask viewers what they think. In grownup countries, that’s called gossip.

Meanwhile, the people our politicians and voters imagine us to be continue to behave differently around sex than our pathetic public policy predicts. No matter how hard people pray, other people keep behaving like, well, people. And given the biology of the human brain-nervous system-reproductive scheme, ignorance and obstacles will continue to lead to outcomes everyone says they want to avoid.

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