A three-year study conducted in St. Louis, Missouri showed that when effective contraception is available to women for free, the number of abortions and teen births sharply decline. According to the Associated Press, the results are eagerly awaited by Obama administration officials hoping to make the case for a similar national program that has been bitterly contested by some on the right.

The study tracked 9,000 women, mostly poor or lacking health insurance. When cost was removed as a barrier to contraceptive access, many women "flocked" to the more expensive "goof-proof" option, a contraceptive implant roughly the size of a matchstick, such as the Nexaplon hormonal implant, or an IUD. For these women, the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions plummeted.

"The effect on teen pregnancy was striking," said the AP story. "There were 6.3 births per 1,000 teenagers in the study. Compare that to a national rate of 34 births per 1,000 teens in 2010. There also were substantially lower rates of abortion, when compared with women in the metro area and nationally: 4.4 to 7.5 abortions per 1,000 women in the study, compared with 13.4 to 17 abortions per 1,000 women overall in the St. Louis region, Peipert calculated. That's lower than the national rate, too, which is almost 20 abortions per 1,000 women."

The results of the St. Louis study arrive just as millions of women in the U.S. are set to receive a benefit under the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," that orders insurers to provide women with coverage contraception without a co-payment.

The study's findings were so dramatic, in fact, that study lead author Dr. Jeffrey Peipert pushed the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology to publish them before the fall elections. Peipert said he wanted voters to have the facts about the Affordable Care Act's reproductive health provisions before they made their decision about how to vote.

“It just has so many implications for our society,” he told NBC News.

Alina Salganicoff, women's health policy director at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said to the AP, "As a society, we want to reduce unintended pregnancies and abortion rates. This study has demonstrated that having access to no-cost contraception helps us get to that goal."

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists President Dr. James T. Breeden said, "It's just an amazing improvement. I would think if you were against abortions, you would be 100 percent for contraception access."

Not everyone agrees.

Jeanne Monahan of the Family Research Council, an organization that has been deemed a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, said, ""Additionally, one might conclude that the Obama administration's contraception mandate may ultimately cause more unplanned pregnancies since it mandates that all health plans cover contraceptives, including those that the study's authors claim are less effective."

The Oklahoma-based crafts chain Hobby Lobby has requested a preliminary injunction exempting them from having to comply with the ACA's reproductive health provisions on religious grounds. The company's fundamentalist Christian founders argue that requirements forcing its insurers to provide employees with the "morning after pill" will amount to tacit approval of a form of abortion. A hearing is scheduled for October 24.

The AP reports, "Nearly half of the nation's 6 million-plus pregnancies each year are unintended. An estimated 43 percent of them end in abortion. Low-income women are far more likely to have an unplanned pregnancy than their wealthier counterparts.

Many U.S. women who haven't already begun to receive their birth control without a co-payment under the Affordable Care Act will begin to do so January 1. Typically, insurance companies begin new coverage years on New Year's Day.

The St. Louis results square with the findings of a Guttmacher Institute study showing that Western Europe features the lowest incidence of abortions in the world. In Wester Europe abortion is legal and readily accessible, but the low abortion numbers are mostly due to widely available effective contraception at little or no cost.

Ironically, abortion numbers are highest in countries where the procedure is illegal. Unfortunately for women, these nations are also the least likely to make contraception available, meaning that women will be forced to obtain abortions from unlicensed providers in potentially unsafe conditions. Unsafe abortions, said Guttmacher, kill 47,000 women worldwide every year.

UPDATE: Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, has issued a statement in response to the study that reads, "This study demonstrates that the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit providing access to contraception without co-pays could dramatically reduce unintended pregnancy and the need for abortion in the United States. Even so, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have both vowed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and in a recent campaign speech, Paul Ryan said he would get rid of the contraception mandate on day one. This proves yet again how out of touch politicians like Romney and Ryan are with their lack of support for women’s health and the health of communities across this country.”

[image of birth control pills via Shutterstock]