The Guttmacher Institute’s report finding a recent reduction in the abortion rate has generated a considerable amount of media coverage, drawing analysis not only from Guttmacher but by Andrew Sullivan and writers for The New Republic, Slate, and Bloomberg Businessweek. Most of these commentators appear to have a vested interest in giving pro-lifers as little credit as possible for the recent decline in the abortion rate, but the theories they offer are either problematic or incomplete. Below is a quick summary of the explanations put forth by various analysts as to why the abortion rate declined by 13 percent between 2008 and 2011:
1) The slow economy: In their report, Guttmacher theorizes that the slow economy made people more determined to avoid pregnancy and more consistent in their contraception use. However, the 2007–09 recession did not result in a similar abortion decline — making this explanation seem unlikely.
2) The recovering economy: The recession officially ended in 2009 and there is some evidence that abortion numbers fall when the economy is doing well. That said, the recovery has been sluggish and times of even stronger economic growth did not result in similar abortion-rate declines.
3) Contraception use: This theory has been put forth by both Andrew Sullivan and William Saletan of Slate. However, in their report, Guttmacher acknowledges contraception use did not increase between 2008 and 2011. Moreover, gains in contraception use do not always result in reductions in the unintended-pregnancy rate. In fact, that rate has remained fairly steady over the long term — despite increases in contraception use.
4) Declines in the fertility rate: It is true that the fertility rate declined between 2008 and 2011, and this is likely part of the story. But it’s not clear why the fertility rate declined, and the abortion rate fell faster than the birthrate between 2008 and 2011 – so the declining fertility rate is not the whole story.
5) Pro-life laws and abortion clinic closures: Guttmacher does acknowledge that certain laws, such as Louisiana’s informed-consent law, likely played a role in that state’s abortion decline. They also acknowledge that the reduction in the number of abortion facilities is playing a role in the declining abortion numbers in some states. That said, abortion rates fell in places where no substantial pro-life laws were passed and the number of clinics remained the same.
Interestingly, none of these analysts is willing to consider that shifts in public opinion on abortion may be playing a role. May of 2009 was the first time that a majority of Americans identified themselves as “pro-life” in a Gallup survey. “Pro-life” has outpolled “pro-choice” six out of nine times since the spring of 2009. The relationship between public opinion toward abortion and abortion rates is not well-researched, but it’s a theory that merits more attention from analysts.
Media outlets have paid considerable attention to the abortion decline the occurred between 2008 and 2011, but have generally given less attention to the fact that the abortion rate has declined by 35 percent since the early 1990s. This suggests the debate has shifted toward pro-lifers: It’s true that contraceptive use has increased since the early 1990s, but that was increasing well before the abortion rate started to decline. More important, data from both Guttmacher and the National Center for Health Statistics shows that the unintended-pregnancy rate has remained fairly stable since the mid 1990s.
Since the abortion rate is falling while the unintended-pregnancy rate is stable, a higher percentage of women facing unintended pregnancies are choosing to carry their children to term. Data from the Department of Health and Human Services support this, pro-lifers should take heart in it.
Regardless of what mainstream-media analysts may say, declining abortion numbers provide evidence that pro-life efforts to change the hearts and minds of women facing unplanned pregnancies are bearing fruit — and, more important, saving lives.
— Michael New is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan – Dearborn and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.