Free contraception won’t encourage promiscuity?

DNC-logo-on_white-sq-250“Myth: Covering contraception under Obamacare will give college students free reign [sic] to be promiscuous.”

—The Democratic National Committee, January 2014 on its “Your Republican Uncle” website

 

Overview

The DNC grasps at straws instead of giving supporting evidence for its claim.

The Facts

We continue to check items from the Democratic National Committee’s “Your Republican Uncle” website with the third item from the “Gender Equity” section.  The DNC says it’s a myth that giving free contraception to college students will encourage promiscuity.  The DNC explains with a follow-up paragraph:

They’ve studied this! Increasing access to condoms, emergency contraception, or the HPV vaccine did not cause an increase sexual behavior among young people . And, as a bonus, investing $235 million on expanding access to contraceptives with Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act will help prevent unintended pregnancies, saving taxpayers $1.32 billion.

 

The DNC also offered three linked sources in support of its claim.   The first was a story at the National Public Radio site, “How Birth Control Saves Taxpayers Money.”  The second was a press release by the American Academy of Pediatrics, publicizing a study that examined whether the vaccine for human papillomavirus led to increased sexual behavior in young girls.  The third was an online bulletin hosted by the University of California San Francisco, citing studies showing that access to emergency contraception does not lead to changes in sexual behavior.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

Though the DNC claimed research supporting its claim that free contraception would not encourage promiscuity among college students, the three supporting references do not support the claim.

NPR and Brookings

The NPR story mentioned a sex education program that increased contraceptive use and lowered the rate of sexual activity:

Programs the Brookings researchers called “evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention,” which combine an emphasis on abstinence “while also educating participants about how to use various methods of contraception” have both reduced the rate of sexual activity and increased the use of contraception.

 

Sex education programs are at least somewhat in the ballpark, but the DNC claimed support for its position that simply providing free contraceptives did nothing to encourage promiscuity.  We examined the Brookings paper for evidence relating more directly to the DNC’s claim but found nothing.  The paper didn’t even touch on increased access to condoms, a condition mentioned specifically by the DNC as an example of free contraception.

American Academy of Pediatrics

We’re not sure why the DNC attached use of the HPV vaccine to free contraception.  The HPV vaccine has no contraceptive function.  It gives protection from a sexually-transmitted virus that increases the risk of some cancers.  Apparently young girls treated with the vaccine don’t change their sexual behavior much as a result.  That’s not much of a reassurance that free contraceptives wouldn’t encourage college students to behave more promiscuously.

UCSF emergency contraception

Effects below the level of statistical significance?

UCSF and Emergency Contraception

Emergency contraception counts as contraception, though UCSF highlights no study looking at free contraception for college students.  UCSF highlights a study that looked at emergency contraception.  The study compared women who had emergency contraception available before sex to women who had access to a clinic after sex.  The study supposedly showed no effect on risky sexual behavior when women had emergency contraception available before sex.  We think UCSF was less than precise in its descriptions of the research findings (see chart to right), and we don’t see any way it can support the DNC’s claim.

Three Strikes

The DNC said it had research backing its claim about free contraception having no effect on the promiscuity of college students.  None of the evidence the DNC presented remotely supports its claim.

The Contraceptive Choice Project

In March 2014, the Los Angeles Times ran a story titled “Does no-cost contraception promote promiscuity? No, says study,” reporting on a new study it said showed no-cost contraception has no effect on promiscuity:

In a prospective cohort study called the Contraceptive Choice Project, 9,256 women and teenage girls in and around St. Louis were provided reversible birth control methods free of charge for a year. The subjects, ages 14 to 45, were asked to complete a survey upon recruitment, before they were prescribed and dispensed the birth control method of their choice, and at six and 12 months after their first visit.

The survey primarily aimed to measure two factors most closely tied to unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases: having multiple sexual partners and frequency of sex. Among the 7,751 participants who completed the surveys, researchers from Washington University in fact observed a statistically significant decrease in the number of sexual partners participants reported having had in the 30 days preceding. While 5.2% of the women reported having more than one male sexual partner in the past 30 days upon recruitment, 3.5% did so at month six and 3.3% did so at month 12.

 

The Times omitted a detail or two in its reporting.

The organization responsible for the study, the Contraceptive Choice Project, has some ideological goals, including popularizing no-cost contraception and promoting long-acting reversible contraception such as IUDs and implants.  Research done in the service to an ideological goal needs the closest scrutiny.  The goal does not necessarily mean the research is no good.  But it does increase the temptation to falsify research or accept bad data that favors the hoped-for outcome.

We’ll look at how this research, if reliable, would impact the DNC’s claim.

  1. The research focused on women in the 14-45 age range, though 59.1 percent were in the 18-25 range
  2. It  focused on poor women, reducing the chances the women were in college
  3. Participants received mandatory contraceptive counseling
  4. Condoms were not among the free contraceptive options
  5. Study participation was biased toward sexually active subjects

For the listed reasons, and others, the Contraceptive Choice Project study does a poor job of simulating a typical college population.

Of even greater concern, the Contraceptive Choice Project study employed no control group. As such, it counts as quasi-experimental research and offers no real support for the DNC’s claim.

Conclusion

The DNC provides no plausible support for its claim free contraception would have no effect on promiscuity in colleges.  The Contraceptive Choice Project study also fails to support the DNC’s claim.

“Myth: Covering contraception under Obamacare will give college students free reign [sic] to be promiscuous.”

icon False red herring

The DNC failed to give any sensible support for its claim about the effects of free contraception.  What it provided was irrelevant, so we’re using the red herring fallacy icon to identify the error of giving irrelevant and distracting evidence.

Free contraception certainly expands free rein for students to engage in promiscuous sex.  Whether they take advantage of the free rein is another matter.

Correction Dec. 15, 2014

Thanks in part to an anonymous reader, we’ve updated this fact check with new information and the deletion of a poorly supported conclusion.  We recount the details on a correction page.

We have not changed our ratings of the DNC’s claims.

References

The Democrat’s Guide to Talking Politics with Your Republican Uncle.” Your Republican Uncle. Democratic National Committee, Jan. 2014. Web. 09 June 2014.

Rovner, Julie. “How Birth Control Saves Taxpayers Money.” NPR. NPR, 06 Mar. 2012. Web. 11 June 2014.

Thomas, Adam. “Policy Solutions for Preventing Unplanned Pregnancy.” The Brookings Institution. The Brookings Institution, Mar. 2012. Web. 11 June 2014.

HPV Vaccination Does Not Lead to Increased Sexual Activity.” Aap.org. American Academy of Pediatrics, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 June 2014.

Bednarczyk, Robert A., Ph.D., Robert Davis, M.D., M.P.H., Kevin Ault, M.D., Walter Orenstein, M.D., and Saad B. Omer, M.B.B.S., Ph.D., M.P.H. “Sexual Activity–Related Outcomes After Human Papillomavirus Vaccination of 11- to 12-Year-Olds.” Pediatrics 130.5 (2012): 798-805. Pediatricsaappublications.org. American Academy of Pediatrics, 15 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 June 2014.

Does Emergency Contraception Promote Sexual Risk-Taking?Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health. University of California San Francisco, 2008. Web. 11 June 2014.

Healy, Melissa. “Does No-cost Contraception Promote Promiscuity? No, Says Study.” Latimes.com. Los Angeles Times, 06 Mar. 2014. Web. 11 June 2014.

Secura, Gina M., Ph.D., M.P.H., Tiffany Adams, B.A., Christina Buckel, M.S.W., Qiuhong Zhao, M.S., and Jeffrey F. Piepert, M.D., Ph.D. “Change in Sexual Behavior With Provision of No-Cost Contraception.” Obstetrics & Gynecology 123.4 (2014): 771-76. Journals.lww.org. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, Apr. 2014. Web. 11 June 2014.

Secura, Gina M., Ph.D., M.P.H., Jenifer E. Allsworth, Ph.D., Tessa Madden, M.D., M.P.H., Jennifer L. Mullersman, B.S.N., and Jeffrey F. Piepert, M.D., Ph.D. “The Contraceptive CHOICE Project: Reducing Barriers to Long-Acting Reversible Contraception.” NIH.gov. National Center for Biotechnology Information, 01 Aug. 2011. Web. 11 June 2014.

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