Most Common Reason for Unplanned Births: ‘I Didn’t Think I Could Get Pregnant’

Breaking news: sex makes you pregnant.

About 37 percent of U.S. births are the result of unplanned pregnancies, says a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), a branch of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). For those not using contraception, the most common reason given was “I didn’t think I could get pregnant.”

What’s worse, that response did not vary by age.

Holy crap.

The number of births from unplanned pregnancies has remained fairly steady since 1982, the NCHS report (PDF) says. Surprising no one, the study found that women with high education and high income were less likely to have unintended pregnancies. Women who aren’t planning a pregnancy may not be in the best prenatal health, are more likely to smoke during pregnancy, and are less likely to receive early pregnancy care and take folic acid supplements. Unplanned pregnancies also have long-term postpartum consequences; moms are less likely to breastfeed and babies have poorer health into childhood.

What exactly is an “unintended pregnancy?” For the CDC, it means that the mom didn’t want to get pregnant at about the time of conception. The study breaks down the level of unplanned-ness into categories: planned, moderately mistimed (the pregnancy occurred less than two years before a woman wanted it to), severely mistimed (the pregnancy occurred two or more years before the mother wanted it to, and unwanted (the mother flat-out didn’t want to get pregnant).

An “intended pregnancy” doesn’t have to mean that you were actively trying to get pregnant, says the CDC. If you were just generally not using birth control because you were fine with getting pregnant at whatever time, that counts as an “intended pregnancy” in the CDC’s book. The report notes that different studies have used different terms, any of which can be accurate: “planned,” “wanted,” or “intended” pregnancies can also be called pregnancies that occurred “at about the right time.”

The English major in me wants to debate the semantics of that, but never mind.

The study found that nearly 77 percent of births to teen mothers were unintended pregnancies, compared with 50 percent for women aged 20 to 24, and 25 percent for women aged 25 to 44.

The most common reason given for nonuse of contraception, given by 36 percent of women, was “I didn’t think I could get pregnant.” Incredibly, this statement did not vary by age. It also did not vary by marital status or income. Women with more education were less likely to make this statement. Other reasons for nonuse of contraception were:

  • “I didn’t really mind if I got pregnant” (23 percent)
  • “Did not expect to have sex” (17 percent)
  • “Worried about the side effects of birth control” (14 percent)
  • “Male partner did not want to use birth control” (8 percent)
  • “Male partner did not want me to use birth control” (5.3 percent)

Frankly, I’m baffled here. Something is very wrong when that many women think they can’t get pregnant. It’s one thing to be a stupid teenager. Lots of teenagers have that false sense of invincibility: “It’ll never happen to me.” But when when grown women don’t realize that sex can make them pregnant, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong.

And what is going on when women are choosing not to use birth control because they’re worried about side effects? Do they not realize that the side effects of unprotected sex can be pregnancy and STDs?  And over 13 percent of the women said either her partner didn’t want to use birth control, or he didn’t want her to use birth control? The mind wobbles.

William Mosher, the lead NCHS statistician involved in the report, said the issue “points to a serious sex education problem among American women,” reported ABC News.

Why should you care about any of this? The report states that in 65 percent of the unintended births, the deliveries were paid for by Medicare, indicating that these babies are being born into families with fewer resources to care for children. Delayed prenatal health and smoking during pregnancy lead to further medical costs. Let me be clear: I’m not opposed to paying for health care for low-income families. But perhaps we should consider investing some of our tax dollars in basic biology education.

How about we include this on those damn standardized tests our schools are so focused on? (Sex can make you pregnant, True or False?)  Because honestly, if we’re producing high school graduates who don’t know the answer, we’re failing as a society.

Article Posted 6 years Ago

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