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Poor women get fewer abortions than rich women

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Poor women in America are five times more likely to have an unplanned baby than those who are affluent, a recent study finds.

This gap is astounding — and researchers at the Brookings Institute are trying to better understand it. Richard Reeves and Joanna Venator did a deep dive into data from the National Survey of Family Growth to try and understand what's different about childbearing across income lines.

Poor women aren't having more sex than affluent women

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The researchers start off where, well, childbearing starts: with sex. Women are equally sexually active (defined as having had sex within the past year) across all earning groups, the researchers found.

But they are using contraception less

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Contraception is where differences start to surface. The Reeves and Venator research shows that women who earn less are also less likely to use contraceptives. Just about 16 percent of women below the poverty line ($11,770 for an individual) say they had unprotected sex in the past year. Among women earning more than 400 percent over the poverty line (about $47,000 annually), that number falls in half, to 7.9 percent.

The same amount of sex plus less contraception means poor women get pregnant more than affluent women

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It's unsurprising, then, that if lower-income women use contraception at a lower rate, they get pregnant more often. Nine percent report becoming pregnant in the past year, three times as many as women who earn more than 400 percent of the poverty line.

Affluent women are much more likely than poor women to get an abortion

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One other thing Reeves and Venator show is that — perhaps contrary to stereotype — higher-income women have a much higher abortion rate than lower-income women.

The story behind the gap in unintended childbearing is, as Reeves and Venator's research shows, is all about contraception and abortion. Higher-income women use both more and, as a result, have fewer unintended births.

A third of women say they would not be upset by an unplanned pregnancy

One of the most interesting parts of Reeves and Venator's work is trying to understand why this gap exists in the first place: could the gaps in contraceptive and abortion use reflect a lack of access, or does it show different preferences for having children?

"Maybe poor women are less concerned about having a baby, even by accident," they write. "Work by the sociologist Kathryn Edin and others does suggest that a baby— even when unplanned — is a great source of fulfillment for women in low-income communities."

There is one other question in the National Survey of Family Growth that helps them explore this a bit. It's where the survey asks women who say they are actively not trying to conceive if they would be upset if they became pregnant. Women across the economic spectrum tend to answer it similarly: most say they would indeed be upset.

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Yes, it is somewhat astounding that a full-third of women who are actively trying to not get pregnant say they would be upset by a pregnancy. But putting that aside for a moment, what's important here is that "this proportion does not vary by income." This suggests that lower-income women aren't less concerned about the prospect of having a child. The real barrier, it seems, is access to good contraception and safe abortion services.