The ability to delay and space childbearing is crucial to women's societal and economic advancement, according to a new Guttmacher Institute review of the scientific literature. The review, which examined the body of evidence on the impact of contraceptive use, underscores that women's ability to obtain and effectively use contraceptives has a positive impact on their education and workforce participation, as well as on subsequent outcomes related to income, family stability, mental health and happiness, and the well-being of their children.
"The scientific evidence strongly confirms what has long been obvious to women," says Adam Sonfield, lead author of the literature review. "Contraceptive use, and the ensuing ability to decide whether and when to have children, is linked to a host of benefits for themselves, the quality of their relationships, and the well-being of their children. But the evidence also suggests that the most disadvantaged women in our society do not fully share in these benefits, which is why unintended pregnancy prevention efforts need to be grounded in broader antipoverty and social justice efforts."
The body of literature reviewed by Guttmacher experts consists of 66 studies conducted over the past three decades and documents outcomes that include:
- Educational attainment: Legal access to contraception contributed significantly to more young women obtaining at least some college education and to more college-educated women pursuing advanced professional degrees.
- Workforce participation: Historically, the pill was a driving force behind significantly more young women participating in the labor force, including jobs requiring advanced education and training.
- Economic stability: Access to contraception significantly contributed to increasing women's earning power and to decreasing the gender pay gap.
- Union formation and stability: Contraception helped spark a trend toward later marriage, helping women and men to find stable, economically attractive matches; relationships are more likely to dissolve after an unplanned pregnancy or birth than after a planned one.
- Mental health and happiness: Women and men who experience unintended pregnancy and unplanned childbirth are more likely than those who do not to experience depression, anxiety and lower reported levels of happiness.
- Well-being of children: Individuals are particularly likely to start off unprepared to be parents and to develop a poor relationship with their children if the birth of a child is unplanned.
The report also addresses an ongoing debate among experts as to the driving factors behind the negative consequences often linked to unplanned and, especially, teen births. Some researchers theorize that preexisting disadvantage leads to both teen motherhood and the challenging social and economic outcomes that teen mothers experience later in life.
The authors find that most of the evidence supports the very strong role of preexisting economic disadvantage, but that the literature also suggests an independent impact of when in her life a woman begins having children. Moreover, the research suggests that effective pregnancy planning and positive social and economic outcomes are intricately linked and mutually reinforcing—and not just for women but for their children as well.
For this reason, Sonfield argues, efforts to reduce unplanned and teen pregnancy— alongside programs that provide financial support, nutrition assistance and child care, and that prevent family violence and abuse—must remain a high national priority.
"We know that the government's investment in subsidized family planning services for young and lower-income women, and in a network of safety-net health centers to provide these services, has paid considerable dividends," says Sonfield, who is also the author of a related policy analysis. "But there never was enough funding to fully meet women's needs, even before the damage done in recent years by ongoing budget cuts and political attacks on contraception. Policymakers should heed the evidence about the strong and widespread benefits of contraception and halt the archaic and harmful attacks on the programs and providers that make contraceptive services accessible and affordable for all women who need and want them."
"The Social and Economic Benefits of Women's Ability to Determine Whether and When to Have Children," by Adam Sonfield, Kinsey Hasstedt, Megan L. Kavanaugh and Ragnar Anderson
"What Women Already Know: Documenting the Social and Economic Benefits of Family Planning," by Adam Sonfield