Patterns of Contraceptive Use and Unintended Pregnancy

In 1988, there were more than 3 million unintended pregnancies in the United States. Slightly fewer than half of these unintended pregnancies occurred among women who reported using reversible contraception, and slightly more than half among women who reported not using contraception despite no apparent intent to become pregnant (Harlap et al., 1991). In absolute numbers, this means that, in 1988, approximately 21 million women who reported using reversible methods of contraception experienced 1.5 million unintended pregnancies. And approximately 4 million women who reported that they were not actively seeking pregnancy and not using contraception at the time that they became pregnant experienced an additional 1.7 million unintended pregnancies (Mosher, 1990).

Figure 4-1 was developed to help provide a better understanding of this complicated connection between contraceptive use and unintended pregnancy. Using data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), this figure shows that in 19881 there were approximately 58 million women of reproductive ages 15–442 in the United States (Tier 1). Six out of 10 of these women reported using contraception; 4 out of 10 reported that they were not currently using contraception (Tier 2). The women who reported using contraception are divided into two groups: those who relied on contraceptive sterilization, either their own or their partner's (Group A), and those who used reversible contraception (Group B). Of these two groups, only the women in Group B have an appreciable risk of becoming pregnant unintentionally, inasmuch as sterilization is so effective.

Similarly, women who reported that they were not currently using contraception are divided into two groups. The first—Group C—is comprised of women who were currently sexually active (i.e., they reported having had


As this volume was being completed, data on contraceptive use from the 1990 National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) telephone reinterview survey were published (Peterson, 1995). These data are used sparingly through this chapter because of concerns about the response rates among some subpopulations.


This number is slightly different from the comparable number in Table 2-1 which is for 1990, not 1988, and includes 13- and 14-year-old girls. Data from 1988 (which exclude 13- and 14-year-olds) are used here because this chapter relates contraception to unintended pregnancy, and 1988 data on unintended pregnancy are more complete than 1990 data.

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