WASHINGTON — Free birth control led to dramatically lower rates of abortions and teen births, a large study concluded Thursday. The findings come as a bitterly contested Obama administration policy is poised to offer similar coverage.
The project tracked more than 9,000 women in St. Louis, many of them poor or uninsured. They were given their choice of a range of contraceptive methods at no cost — from birth control pills to options like the IUD or a matchstick-sized implant.
When price wasn't an issue, women flocked to the most effective contraceptives — the implanted options, which typically cost hundreds of dollars up-front to insert. These women experienced far fewer unintended pregnancies as a result, Dr. Jeffrey Peipert of Washington University in St. Louis reported in a study published Thursday.
The effect on teen pregnancy was striking: 6.3 births per 1,000 teenagers in the study, compared with a national rate of 34 births per 1,000 teens in 2010. There also were lower rates of abortion: 4.4 to 7.5 abortions per 1,000 women in the study, compared with almost 20 abortions per 1,000 women nationally.
If the program were expanded, one abortion could be prevented for every 79 to 137 women given a free contraceptive choice, Peipert's team reported in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology.
The findings of the study, which ran from 2008 to 2010, come as millions of women are beginning to get access to contraception without copays under President Barack Obama's health care law. Women's health specialists said the research foreshadows that policy's potential impact.
"It's just an amazing improvement," Dr. James T. Breeden, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said of the results. "I would think if you were against abortions, you would be 100 percent for contraception access."