Show Me the Money

Research into unintended pregnancies often focuses on their socioeconomic impact on mothers and children, but there’s a broader financial dimension at play: Unintended pregnancies cost the U.S. taxpayer a lot of money. A pair of articles published in Perspectives in 2011 set out to determine what these costs are.

Using data primarily from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System, Sonfield and colleagues found that 51% of the two million publicly funded births that occurred in 2006 in the United States resulted from unintended pregnancies, accounting for $11.1 billion in taxpayer costs. These costs covered prenatal care, labor and delivery, postpartum care and one year of care for the infant.

The authors of the other article included spending on fetal losses and abortions, but arrived at similar cost estimates. Using data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth and other sources, Monea and Thomas determined lower, mean and upper estimates of the annual national cost of unintended pregnancy to be $9.6 billion, $11.3 billion and $12.6 billion, respectively. The authors also calculated the savings that would accrue by preventing unintended pregnancy—and found the lower, mean and upper estimates to be $4.7 billion, $5.6 billion and $6.2 billion.

According to the authors, both articles likely underestimate the total taxpayer cost related to births following unintended pregnancies. Sonfield et al. emphasized that the costs stemming from the increased likelihood of preterm birth, low birth weight and other negative perinatal outcomes were unaccounted for in their model. The authors of both articles also noted that other public expenditures—Monea and Thomas highlighted costs associated with unintended teenage pregnancies—would probably inflate their numbers.

Both articles emphasized the economic importance of investing in programs and policies geared toward preventing unintended pregnancy, particularly in an era of government belt-tightening. As Monea and Thomas pointed out, their mean estimate of annual savings of $5.6 billion was more than three-quarters of the federal funding level for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs at the time. Working to prevent unintended pregnancy, they concluded, “is a timely and sensible strategy.”

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine