TV & Radio
The New York Times
November 5, 2006
Abortion, Condoms and Bush
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
It seemed the perfect way to shame President Bush for disregarding the poor: I suggested that he had presided over a surge in abortions.
In that column two years ago, I cited a study indicating that the abortion rate had risen sharply after Mr. Bush took office. Conservatives protested furiously, saying that the figures weren’t reliable.
Now we do have better statistics, and my conservative critics seem to have been right.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do show a tiny increase in abortions in 2002 (the most recent year available). But more comprehensive figures from the Guttmacher Institute, which does research on reproductive health, indicate that abortions fell — albeit by tiny amounts — in the first three years of Mr. Bush’s presidency.
In 2003, the institute estimates, there were 1.29 million abortions in the U.S., 26,000 fewer than in President Bill Clinton’s last year in office.
Yet abortions fell much faster under Mr. Clinton, and the evidence shows that condoms do more to bring down abortion rates than pious moralizing. That’s why staunch “pro-life” presidents like Mr. Bush or Ronald Reagan have accomplished far less in reducing abortions than a “pro-choice” president like Mr. Clinton.
Here’s the quick overview. After abortion was legalized in 1973, abortions surged under Democrats and Republicans alike and reached a peak of 1.6 million in 1990. President Reagan favored a constitutional amendment banning abortions, but in practice the number of abortions rose modestly on his watch.
The numbers began to fall late in George H. W. Bush’s presidency and plummeted during the Clinton years. There were 180,000 fewer abortions in Mr. Clinton’s last year as president than in his first year. But that trend line flattened out so that the declines in Mr. Bush’s first term were tiny.
“The new numbers strongly suggest that a decades-long decline in U.S. abortion rates is stalling out,” the Guttmacher Institute’s president, Sharon Camp, wrote in a recent analysis. She told me that the institute was gathering data for 2004 and 2005 and feared that they might even show an uptick in abortions.
One reason is that in half the states, family planning spending hasn’t kept pace with inflation. Thus, at last count, 11 percent of sexually active women and girls were not using contraception even though they did not want babies, up from 7 percent in 1995. Half of unwanted pregnancies come from that group.
Then there’s the rise in the poverty rate under Mr. Bush and the increase in the number of uninsured Americans. The number of women who say they need help paying for prescription contraceptives rose by one million between 2000 and 2004.
So let’s require all health insurers to cover the cost of prescription contraceptives, as many already do. And let’s increase our investment in family planning, since every tax dollar spent on contraceptives reduces Medicaid spending on pregnant women and newborn babies by $3.
The evidence is solid about how to reduce abortions: promote contraception and comprehensive sex education (rather than “abstinence only” programs). California has led the country in these areas, and as a result it cut teenage pregnancy rates by 39 percent over eight years.
Western Europe and Canada both emphasize sex education and family planning programs. The result is that American women are almost three times as likely to get abortions as women in Belgium or Germany. Or take Canada. Among women and girls aged 15 to 19, Americans are 38 percent more likely to get abortions than Canadians. And American teenagers, both boys and girls, are nearly 10 times as likely to catch gonorrhea.
Bush family members were pioneers in supporting the family planning services that can reduce abortion rates. President Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush, lost an election for U.S. senator in Connecticut in 1950 partly because he was denounced for his ties to Planned Parenthood.
Later, George H. W. Bush was, as a young congressman, a prime sponsor of the 1970 public health program that provides family planning services in the U.S. He was so enthusiastic that his nickname then was Rubbers.
If Mr. Bush revived that legacy, he could lead a bipartisan campaign to promote sex education and increase access to contraceptives. Some experts estimate that this could cut the number of abortions in the U.S. by half a million annually. So Mr. Bush, step down from the pulpit, roll up your sleeves — and go back to your family roots!