The existence of state-level restrictions on minors' legal ability to obtain abortions or oral contraceptives in the 1960s and 1970s appears to have influenced their fertility, according to a study of birthrates among 15–21-year-olds during this period.1 Increased access to abortions was associated with declines in birthrates among both white and nonwhite young women; expanded access to the pill also was related to birthrate reductions among whites. The differences were accounted for mainly by changes in the rate of first births to unmarried women.

Earlier studies of birthrates did not consider younger minors' legal access to the pill and to abortion in the late 1960s and the 1970s; this shortcoming is critical, because such access may affect women's short- and long-term fertility, in addition to career and labor force outcomes. A host of children's outcomes—such as educational attainment, welfare use and fatal injury rates—may be affected as well. This study was the first to assess whether birthrates were influenced by access to the pill or by state laws that were in place prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and that allowed minors to obtain an abortion without parental involvement. Fertility and population data were drawn from U.S. vital statistics (1968–1979) and Census Bureau (1970–1980) databases, and state-level policy variables for 1968–1978 were collected from a variety of sources.

Legal access to the pill was defined by whether a minor could obtain the method without parental consent in the year prior to giving birth, and legal access to abortion was defined similarly. Ordinary least-squares regression analyses controlled for age, state and year fixed effects, as well as for state-year fixed effects. In light of racial differences in response to these policies, the analyses assessed the birthrates of whites and nonwhites separately. Nonmarital births were also analyzed separately, because minors who were married or who had children were usually legally emancipated and so already had access to the pill and abortion in most states.

Among white minors, having had access to the pill was associated with a 9% drop in the overall birthrate and an 8% drop in the rate of nonmarital first births. In this same group, access to an abortion was correlated with a 17% decline in the nonmarital birthrate and a 16% decline in the rate of nonmarital first births. Only one association was found among nonwhite women: Access to abortion was associated with an 8% decrease in the nonmarital birthrate. Where significant differences in birthrates were found between white and nonwhite minors, access to the pill and access to abortion were confirmed to have stronger relationships with white women's birthrates. Robustness tests supported the association between access to abortion and decreased birthrates, while the relationship between access to the pill and birthrates received less support.

The researcher believes that the smaller decline in birthrate seen with access to the pill than with abortion access may be explained by the pill's inherent failure rate and the fact that its use requires continual action on the woman's part. She asserts that “changes in minors' abortion and oral contraceptive access brought about by the changes in state and national laws in the late 1960s and early 1970s” were instrumental in reducing minors' birthrates, particularly among unmarried women experiencing their first birth. Although these findings are based on data collected several decades ago, the researcher argues that the results “can inform contemporary debate on minors' access to reproductive control.”

—J. Thomas

REFERENCE

1. Guldi M, Fertility effects of abortion and birth control pill access for minors, Demography, 2008, 45(4):817–827.