The nonprofit Guttmacher Institute yesterday reported that 40% of pregnancies across the U.S. are “unintended. That number seems astonishingly high, especially given the modern woman’s access to birth control. Why, when so many of us are ferociously planning most other aspects of life, are we failing to get organized when it comes to one of the most important decisions we’ll ever make? It doesn’t make any sense — until you parse the meaning of ‘unintended’ a bit:
In nearly every state, about 65% to 75% of unintended pregnancies were considered mistimed and 25% to 35% unwanted, according to Guttmacher.
There’s a big difference, I’d say, between a mistimed pregnancy and an unwanted one. The latter is like, ‘Holy crap, what am I going to do about THIS?’ But ‘mistiming a pregnancy implies some degree of planning to get pregnant, doesn’t it? You can’t mistime something you never intended to do.
It seems like a significant portion of unintended pregnancies, then, aren’t based on complete family planning failure so much as a lackadaisical approach. Maybe it’s just denial; maybe it’s a ‘not-necessarily-trying-but-not-necessarily-opposed’ to getting pregnant situation. There’s probably a fair amount of reproductive illiteracy behind the stats, as well, but I doubt women are as ignorant as the statement that “four in ten pregnancies are unplanned” seems to scream.
Claire Brindis, director of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California-San Francisco, quips that “we do a better job of planning to buy tickets to see Lady Gaga than we do about being careful in planning for when we’re going to have children, how many children and when in our lives we’re going to have them.”
It’s a nice soundbite, but not one that rings terribly true based on Guttmacher’s analysis.
Meghan Daum, writing for the L.A. Times last month, offered her own theory about why it is that people don’t take the exact timing of pregnancies more seriously:
When it comes to parenthood, the whole notion of planning can be so overwhelming that it feels better to leave it to fate.
Sure, we know that the respectable, socially responsible thing to do is to think hard about when and how many children to have and to take the necessary steps — abstinence or birth control — to avoid producing a child that cannot be properly cared for. But as any parent will tell you, there is no “perfect” time to have a baby. It’s always going to be a showstopper.
[...] To plan your parenthood implies heightened accountability. It means you’ve made a deliberate choice, that you’re well-prepared, that you’re absolutely, positively capable of doing an exemplary job. That’s a lot to bear.
It’s precisely because the decision is so important—because it’s so much bigger than buying Lady Gaga tickets, not in spite of it—that it’s sometimes actively ignored.
For now, researchers themselves are mum on the specifics; according to USA Today, Guttmacher will release more details about unintended pregnancy in reports later this year.