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Unintended Pregnancy

What's the Problem?

Unintended pregnancies are either mistimed (the woman didn't plan to become pregnant until later in life) or unwanted (the woman had no plan to ever become pregnant). This pervasive public health problem occurs regardless of age, marital status, socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. Studies show unintended pregnancy may lead to delayed start of prenatal care, increased risk of premature birth, and increased physical violence against the mother. Almost all induced abortions are related to unintended pregnancy.

Almost one-half (49%) of the approximately 6 million pregnancies in the United States in 1995 were unintended, and approximately one-third (31%), resulting in an estimated 1.22 million births, are unintended.

Who's at Risk?

Most unintended pregnancies occur in women who are older than 19 years of age. About half of unintended pregnancies occur among couples using no contraceptive method and half are due to incorrect use of contraceptives or contraceptive failures. Twenty-one percent of births in marriage are unintended. The proportion of all unintended pregnancies varies by age, with teenagers younger than 18 and women 40 and older having the highest percentage. About 48% of all women aged 15-44 have had an unintended pregnancy (either an unplanned birth, an abortion, or both).

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Can It Be Prevented?

Most unintended pregnancies can be prevented. Approximately 8-10 contraceptive methods are available to prevent unintended pregnancy.

  • Even so, there are many obstacles to consistently preventing unwanted pregnancy. Abstinence is the only method that is 100% effective-some other methods reach 98-99%.
  • Some people believe using contraception or planning ahead to use contraception is 'not romantic';
  • some women may have misconceptions about side effects and long-term risks of certain contraceptive methods;
  • a contraceptive may be used, but not consistently and correctly;
  • there are stigmas associated with contraception, abortion, pregnancy, being unmarried and pregnant, etc;
  • some people believe it will not happen to them;
  • some people believe using contraception is unhealthy, sinful, or makes them appear 'loose';
  • the financial cost associated with using some contraceptive methods (physical examination, routine laboratory tests, time away from work, transportation, cost of method, maintenance costs, etc.) may be too expensive for some people;
  • a woman may not want to be pregnant, but her partner may want a baby;
  • some contraceptive methods may have disadvantages or side effects that may discourage use;
  • and, some unintended pregnancies are caused by rape or forced sex.

Tips for Scripts

  • INFORM male and female viewers that sexually active women of reproductive age need to know about unintended pregnancy.
  • REMIND viewers it only takes one time during the right time to get pregnant. To greatly reduce the risk of an unintended pregnancy, use a contraceptive method consistently and correctly
  • REMIND viewers there are many contraceptive methods and they should see a health care provider to determine which is best for them.
  • REMIND viewers that not all contraceptives protect against sexually transmitted diseases. A latex condom provides a protective barrier against pregnancy and against sexually transmitted disease.
  • INFORM viewers that having more than one partner increases the chances for sexually transmitted diseases.
  • REMIND viewers that drinking or using drugs affects decisions about risky behavior and contraception.

Case Examples

  1. A woman in her late twenties is at a party with friends. She meets an attractive man and begins a conversation which leads to an unexpected encounter in his apartment later that night. The woman pulls away and asks him to use a condom. The man isn't thrilled but pulls a condom out of his pocket.
  2. Two young women in a college cafeteria are talking. One reveals she had unprotected sex the night before and is nervous about possible pregnancy. Her friend tells her she could still be protected by emergency contraception, but she will have to go to the doctor or emergency room immediately. The two leave together and make a phone call to schedule an urgent care appointment that day.

Spanish Version of Unintended Pregnancy [PDF – 218K]

  • Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017
  • Page last updated: September 15, 2017
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