Quiet Decline
The good news about abortion that hasn't made news.


Pro-lifers have been very quietly receiving some good news in recent years. On Thursday, the Alan Guttmacher Institute released data indicating that the number of abortions has fallen by 25 percent since 1990. These findings are very consistent with data that was released this past November by the Centers for Disease Control. Overall the number of abortions has fallen 13 out of the past 14 years, including every year of the George W. Bush administration. Furthermore, there is a growing body of social-science evidence indicating that legal restrictions on abortion are playing a key role in these declines.

However, one would not know this from listening to the mainstream media. The media continue to largely ignore America’s long-term abortion decline. Instead, they continue provide plenty of favorable coverage to a relatively small number of analyses which supposedly indicate that both the passage of pro-life legislation and support for pro-life candidates does little to affect the incidence of abortion.

The most well-known example of this occurred during the 2004 election cycle. Ethicist Glen Harold Stassen wrote a widely circulated article for Sojourners, arguing that abortions had actually increased after President Bush’s inauguration. This article was reprinted by a number of major newspapers around the country including the Charlotte Observer, the Miami Herald, the Houston Chronicle, and the Hartford Courant. Furthermore, Stassen’s research was cited in articles that appeared in the the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There were a number of problems with Stassen’s analysis. He received his data from state health departments whose data tend to less reliable than the data released by the Centers for Disease Control. Stassen also analyzed data from a very small sampling of states. Furthermore, some states specifically attributed their increases to more rigorous reporting standards. Nonetheless Stassen’s claims have stuck and are still frequently cited by Democrats and supporters of legalized abortion. Interestingly, now that more reliable data from both the Alan Guttmacher Institute and the CDC demonstrates that abortions actually declined during President Bush’s first term in office, not one major newspaper has revisited the issue or issued a public correction.

Instead, this fall, many mainstream-media outlets were busy touting another study which at first glance, appeared to question the effectiveness of placing any legal restrictions on abortion. This study appeared in the British Medical Journal The Lancet. It found that countries where abortion is legally restricted have a similar incidence of abortion to countries with permissive abortion policies. Not surprisingly, this survey has received effusive praise from pro-choice activists.

However, these activists, and much of the mainstream media, misinterpreted the findings. Some background is instructive. Periodically, scholars affiliated with the Alan Guttmacher Institute (Planned Parenthood’s research arm) conduct a comprehensive survey on the worldwide incidence of abortion. The survey which The Lancet published this October collected data from 2003. Prior to this study, the most recent worldwide abortion survey used data from 1995. As such, it is very important to note that this study that appeared in The Lancet was in no way a scientific study of the effects of legal restrictions on abortion. It was simply a survey of the worldwide incidence of abortion.

So why has this study received so much praise from the media and pro-choice activists? This is because supporters of abortion rights have latched on to two findings which they claim demonstrate the ineffectiveness of pro-life legislation. First is that countries with restrictive abortion laws have approximately the same incidence of abortion as countries with permissive abortion policies. Second, since the most recent worldwide survey, the largest abortion declines have taken place in Europe where abortion is mostly legal.