It’s been nearly a century since the birth control movement kicked into high gear in the United States. At the time, it was illegal to dispense information about birth control, let alone supply the actual methods. We’ve come a long way in the decades since: first birth control was legalized for married couples, then the pill was approved by the FDA, and finally, in 1972, birth control was legalized for non-married women.
The result was nothing short of a revolution, with profound effects on women’s equality, access to education, and career advancement. Today, women represent more than half of college students and more than half of the workforce. Women’s economic empowerment has brought more freedom to choose life partners, and to leave relationships that are abusive. For this, we can all give a resounding #THXBIRTHCONTROL!
Today, as we express our gratitude for the ways in which birth control has made life better, let’s consider the potential impact it can have on one of our most pressing problems, family economic instability. Here are five ways effective birth control—particularly the most effective methods like IUDs and implants, which switch the default from “I will eventually get pregnant” with no birth control or less effective methods, to “I won’t get pregnant unless I take an active step to do so” (go to the doctor to have it removed)—can improve economic prospects for women, men and children:
1. Birth control allows couples more time to decide if they want to commit. Nearly 60 percent of children are born outside of wedlock today. Many young couples are “drifting” into parenthood without getting married, and often these couples will not be together for the long term. Most of these couples did not intend to get pregnant. Effective birth control allows young couples more time to decide if they want to make a long-term commitment to each other before starting a family. Couples who do make a long-term commitment experience less depression, more happiness, and better relationships over the long term – all of which contribute to better economic prospects.
2. Couples who stay together, pay together. Couples who report having an unplanned child are twice as likely to split up as couples who have children that are planned. When couples do not stay together, there are profound consequences for the mother, father, and child. Having two parents in the home means more potential household income, and more time available for childrearing and household duties. Effective birth control allows couples to delay having children until they are truly ready, which makes them more likely to stay a couple and provide for their families, together.
3. Better emotional health leads to better educational and job performance. Women who have children as a result of an unplanned pregnancy experience more stress and more depression. This affects their ability to function: as a parent, a student, or an employee. Effective birth control allows women to delay having children until they are truly ready, which leads to better emotional health and greater stability in their lives.
4. Less violence means fewer job performance problems. Unplanned pregnancy has long been associated with domestic violence. In addition to the physical and emotional effects of domestic violence, it is also associated with job performance—victims are more likely to be absent and late than non-victims. Lost wages and lost jobs often result, leaving women economically vulnerable. In a recent study of pregnant women who did not want a child but had to continue the pregnancy, those women stayed with violent abusers much longer than those who did not have the child. Effective birth control empowers women to avoid unplanned pregnancies and the risk of associated violence, which destabilizes work and income.
5. Intentional parenthood reduces toxic stress during childhood. There is increasing evidence that toxic stress in early childhood—resulting from adversity and challenges associated with poverty—can have life-long effects. Early adversity has been linked to impairments in learning, behavior, and physical and mental well-being. When children are born as a result of a planned pregnancy, they are less likely to suffer toxic stress, regardless of the parents’ economic status. Couples that are intentional about when to have children, and who use effective birth control to plan their pregnancies, are helping set up their children for more optimal development, learning, and long-term economic stability.
Despite its tremendous benefits, there are still millions of women in the United States who do not want to get pregnant right now but do not have the means to access the most effective birth control, a topic Ruth Levine addressed recently in The Price is Right—Or Is it?
And for a much deeper analysis of the increasing number of unmarried young people “drifting into parenthood,” check out the fantastic work of Isabel Sawhill and Hewlett Foundation grantee the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.