Politics & Policy

What’s Driving the Long-Term Decline in Abortions?

Yesterday, the Associated Press published an analysis of recent abortion trends. Although the last year that the CDC released abortion data was 2011, a team of Associated Press reporters compiled more recent state-level abortion data obtained from state health departments. Overall, they found that the number of abortions had declined by 12 percent since 2010. The authors found large declines in states such as Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, and Oklahoma that were active in passing pro-life laws. At the same time, they were quick to point out that five of the six states that experienced the largest percentage declines had not recently passed any pro-life laws.

Some context: One important caveat that received little attention in the article is that abortion data from state health departments can be unreliable. Abortion reporting standards vary greatly across states. Sometimes reported decreases are caused by less rigorous reporting rather than actual declines in the incidence of abortion. Secondly, the AP piece’s analysis would have been better if it had focused on abortion rates rather than the overall number of abortions, since some of the fluctuations in abortion numbers might have been affected by changes in population or demographics.

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A considerably smaller percentage of women with unintended pregnancies are having abortions.

The story quotes several spokespeople from groups that support legal abortion who argue that increased contraception use is responsible for the declining abortion numbers. But as I have previously argued, increased contraceptive use is an unpersuasive argument for America’s long-term abortion decline — unintended pregnancy rates have remained relatively stable and by some measures have actually increased since the early 1990s. A better explanation is the fact that a considerably smaller percentage of women with unintended pregnancies are having abortions. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, the percentage of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion fell from 54 percent in 1994 to 40 percent in 2008. The Associated Press article does not even consider this as a possibility.

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I have always argued the pro-life movement should do more to publicize the declining abortion numbers in the United States. After all, long-term abortion trends receive relatively little coverage from the mainstream media. Few Americans know that the number of abortions performed in the United States peaked in 1990 and has declined by approximately 34 percent since that time. Through offering alternatives to women facing unplanned pregnancies, enacting legislation, and shifting public opinion, pro-life efforts have succeeded. The data presented in the recent Associated Press article are good evidence that pro-life progress is continuing well into the current decade.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor of social research and political science at the Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.

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