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Why contraception study is fertile ground in abortion debate

By Mary Kenny

The debate about abortion rights and wrongs isn't going away any time soon - there will always be differences over this complex subject. But what's noticeable by its absence is the word now seldom mentioned in connection with abortion: contraception. Sometimes it's as though there is no link between being reluctantly pregnant and contraceptive choice.

Forty years ago, in 1975, a ground-breaking study was published on this theme, with the revealing title, Taking Chances: Abortion and the Decision not to Contracept. It was written by a professor of sociology at Berkeley in California, Kristin Luker, and supported, both financially and with research resources, by Planned Parenthood of America.

Yet it was not a polemic, but a cool and dispassionate sociological analysis of why women presenting at an abortion clinic in California had chosen to risk an unwanted pregnancy rather than use contraception. Dr Luker was herself puzzled, at the outset, as to why, at the time of her research, sophisticated women in California, who had "high contraceptive expertise", would choose to have an expensive and invasive abortion rather than use effective contraception. Five hundred women were interviewed for answers.

She found a variety of different responses, some of them wrapped up in complex logarithms and academic jargon about "costs" and "benefits", but certain startling, and yet recognisably predictable, points emerged. One was that for some women the "risk" of a pregnancy was worth taking, especially if the "probability" was low. If a woman had sexual relations over a number of years, and had not yet become pregnant, she (and her guy) felt they were "getting away with it". And the longer they "got away with it", the more risks they took. But eventually luck runs out.

This pregnancy might then be judged "unplanned", although Kristin Luker notes that "unplanned does not necessarily mean unwanted" and there can be many subconscious factors. A woman may be "testing" her fertility. She may also be "testing" a relationship: how will the man react to a pregnancy? Will he offer marriage, or commitment? Possibly, but he may as likely suggest abortion as, Luker writes, the advent of contraceptive technology tends to mean that "an unwanted pregnancy is the woman's fault". Kristin Luker is pro-choice, but she is also an honest researcher, so she reports even that which might query the easy availability of abortion.

Unwanted pregnancies can occur simply because of deliberate risk-taking: people always take risks, and a few people find it thrilling. Some women also feel that the risk brings extra pleasure to sex. One woman told her: "I was daring it (the pregnancy) to happen." And "the advent of readily available abortion increases the pool of risk-takers" - this partly explains why contraception may increase the demand for abortion, not curtail it.

And there are psychological prompts. Luker notes that the death of a parent can trigger a pregnancy. So can job dissatisfaction.

The "unisex" culture can make some women want to affirm their femininity: one way of "proving that you are a woman" is to get pregnant - even if you don't want a baby.

Contraception can be psychologically complex. Some women told researchers that they felt birth control "cheapened" the experience of sex; some felt that it cheapened them - making them "too sexually available".

Some didn't want to see themselves as contraceptive users. Some disliked the "hassle" of contraception, especially barrier methods.

And some women only liked to use contraception in a "relationship-specific" context: if they were married or committed to a specific mate.

Unwanted pregnancies often occurred after a couple had broken up, or even divorced, and then had a temporary reconciliation - after the woman had stopped taking the Pill.

Have things changed? Probably yes, in certain details, but the continued prevalence of abortion in societies with very sophisticated contraception hasn't altered.

One factor glaringly omitted from the 1975 study is alcohol. Today, the risk-taking element of alcohol would surely figure.

We are often told that 4,000 Irish women a year are "forced" to travel abroad to terminate a pregnancy, and yet, 10 years ago, that figure was almost double - Irish abortion figures have been reducing quite impressively.

Kristin Luker suggests that women who control their fertility successfully without recourse to abortion tend to be women who are "at ease with themselves". So perhaps the good news is that more Irish women are, actually, "at ease" with themselves.

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