Curious Conclusion about Contraception

Most theses have just two parts. First, you choose a topic. Second, you spend months developing what economics professor James Hughes calls “true explanations” for anything and everything that turns up.

Audrey Nunez '07 discusses her economics thesis with James Hughes, the College's Thomas Sowell Professor of Economics, in his Pettingill Hall office. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

But for Audrey Nuñez ’07, whose economics thesis compared the effects of contraceptive policies in two countries — Belize and her homeland of Honduras — the thesis saga continued through spring, summer, and fall with parts three, four, and five.

There was the unsettling part (her results contradicted her hypothesis), the rare part (it got published), and the transformative part (the experience prompted her to return to Honduras).

Using survey data, Nuñez had hypothesized that in Honduras, where contraception use is supported by government hospitals and fieldworkers, the fertility rate would be lower than in Belize, where contraception use is only supported indirectly, by NGOs and the like.

But Nuñez, a French and economics double major, discovered the opposite is true. “Belizean women are more likely to use contraception,” she says. And despite government support of contraceptive use, Honduran women have more children than Belizean women.

Last summer, Nuñez’s one-semester thesis was published online by the University of Costa Rica’s Central American Population Studies Center, which provided Nuñez’s data. Publishing a one-semester thesis is rare at Bates and nationally, says Hughes, the College’s Thomas Sowell Professor of Economics. “Audrey’s is the first of my students’ one-semester theses to be published in its entirety.”

Nuñez’s thesis results, though “very unexpected,” didn’t dissuade her from further exploration. “I want to find out the reasons for the incongruity,” she says. (One reason could be that Belize programs better educate women about contraceptive use.) And, she wonders, if government support for contraceptive use isn’t very effective, what else in her country might not be bringing assumed benefits?

This epiphany led to part five of her thesis: She elected to defer graduate school to work in Honduras. “My country needs young professionals willing to recognize problems and make a difference,” she says.