Did Free Birth Control in Colorado Drop Unplanned Pregnancies by 40 Percent?
A long-circulating meme about purported effects of free birth control in Colorado asserts that the practice caused a huge drop in the state’s unplanned pregnancies and abortions.
Across an image of mountain scenery, the meme (watermarked by The Other 98%) read:
COLORADO HAS OFFERED FREE BIRTH CONTROL FOR THE LAST 5 YEARS AND HAS SEEN:
* UNINTENDED PREGNANCIES DROP BY 40%
* ABORTION FALL BY 42%
* MILLIONS IN PUBLIC HEALTH COVERAGE SAVED
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Although the text described “the last 5 years,” the meme dated back to at least 2015, suggesting that it referred to a stretch between 2010 through 2015 or earlier. The meme made four claims about that time period, concluding with an opinion that the initiative ought to be implemented by other states:
- That the state of Colorado provided “free birth control” during a five-year period at some point before August 2015;
- That unintended pregnancies dropped by 40 percent in the five years after the program was introduced;
- That 42 percent fewer abortions occurred in that five-year span;
- That millions of dollars in public healthcare expenditures were avoided during that period.
The source for the claims may have been a July 2015 New York Times article, published just before the earliest iteration of the meme we could find. It largely covered all four statistics mentioned in the meme, with some apparent inference in the meme:
Over the past six years, Colorado has conducted one of the largest experiments with long-acting birth control. If teenagers and poor women were offered free intrauterine devices and implants that prevent pregnancy for years, state officials asked, would those women choose them?
They did in a big way, and the results were startling. The birthrate among teenagers across the state plunged by 40 percent from 2009 to 2013, while their rate of abortions fell by 42 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. There was a similar decline in births for another group particularly vulnerable to unplanned pregnancies: unmarried women under 25 who have not finished high school.
Proponents say the program is working. The state health department estimated that every dollar spent on the long-acting birth control initiative saved $5.85 for the state’s Medicaid program, which covers more than three-quarters of teenage pregnancies and births. Enrollment in the federal nutrition program for women with young children declined by nearly a quarter between 2010 and 2013.
According to the New York Times article, the birthrate among teenagers dropped 40 percent — presumably the “unplanned” pregnancies mentioned in the meme. The rate of abortions dropped 42 percent in the same cohort, but it didn’t say what the drop in non-teenaged low-income women was by comparison. It also said that for every dollar spent on the program, the state’s Medicaid program saved $5.85 — but not what the overall number of births avoided or expenditures saved might be.
However, a July 2014 CNN piece described the program’s effect as of that year, providing a timeframe for the start of the initiative as well as dollar amounts saved in a single year at the beginning of its implementation:
Colorado’s teen birth rate dropped 40% between 2009 and 2013, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced this week [in 2014], in part due to a program that provides long-acting contraception to low-income women … In 2010 alone, Colorado saved $42 million on health care costs associated with teen births, thanks to the program, according to a press release from the governor’s office.
A since-archived Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment press release from November 2017 reported that the initiative continued past 2015. It continued performing above expectations, and subsequent savings of $66.1 million to $69.6 million were cited for the years between 2009 and 2015:
Colorado’s teen birth and abortion rates continue to plummet under a state health department family planning program that averted nearly $70 million in state and federal spending.
“This is a good example of a smart and compassionate government program,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “Not only did this initiative improve the health and well-being of thousands of Colorado women, it helped Colorado avoid the social and economic costs of unintended pregnancy.”
From 2009 through 2016, the state birth rate fell 54 percent for women ages 15 to 19 and 30 percent for women ages 20 to 24. The state abortion rate declined 64 percent for women ages 15 to 19 and 41 percent for women ages 20 to 24. The number of teens giving birth for the second or third time dropped 63 percent during the same time period.
An independent analysis by University of Colorado researchers concluded that the state health department’s family planning program was responsible for as much as two-thirds of the drop in births from 2009 through 2015, averting $66.1 million to $69.6 million in potential costs for four state and federal programs that provide health care, food and other assistance to low-income women and their infants.
In other words, the meme’s claims actually understated the effects of Colorado’s free birth control program by 2019. The drop in teen births fell to 54 percent in subsequent years. The abortion rate also fell further, to 64 percent. And the 2017 update from Colorado’s health officials indicated that it estimated that $66.1 million to $69.6 million in expenditures related to unplanned pregnancies and births had been averted.