The Corner

Abortion Rates Have Been Dropping for a Long Time, and It Doesn’t Seem to Be Contraception Driving Them Down

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones takes issue with my Tuesday blog post criticizing a Guttmacher study that credits contraception use for the decline in the U.S. abortion rate between 2008 and 2011. Drum claims the abortion rate has actually been declining since 1973 — this is clearly wrong, since the abortion rate rose sharply in the years after Roe v. Wade and only started to decline in the early 1980s. But his larger claim is correct: The decline between 2008 and 2011 is consistent with a long-term decline in the abortion rate.

Drum concludes his post by doubting that public opinion, contraceptives, or legislation are playing a substantial role in the recent abortion decline. Both sides, he says, should “stand down in the face of long term evidence.” However, instead of standing down, both sides should actually consider the long term evidence. A serious look at the evidence raises serious doubts about the extent to which contraceptives are responsible for the long-term decrease in the abortion rate. What are the possible long-term factors?

Pro-life legislation: There’s an impressive body of peer-reviewed academic research showing that public funding restrictions, parental-involvement laws, and properly designed informed consent laws reduce the incidence of abortion. Furthermore the number of state level pro-life laws has increased significantly since the Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision in 1992.  That said, the abortion rate has fallen even in states that have not enacted any pro-life laws, so there are certainly other factors at work.

Public opinion: Drum claims that there has been little change in public opinion toward abortion. But in reality, the pro-life position has made impressive gains in the court of public opinion. In 1995, Gallup found that only 33 percent of respondents were willing to describe themselves as “pro-life.” Thirty-four of 38 Gallup surveys taken since 1995 indicate that at least 40 percent of respondents identify as “pro-life.” Additionally, in 2009 for the first time ever, a majority of Americans were willing to describe themselves as pro-life. Overall, “pro-life” has outpolled “pro-choice” in six of the past ten Gallup surveys.

Gains in pro-life sentiment can be seen in other ways. Since the mid 1990s, Gallup surveys have also shown statistically significant increases in the percentage of respondents who believe that abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances” and significant reductions in the percentage of respondents who say “abortion should be legal under any circumstances.” Other survey research paints a similar picture: The General Social Survey (GSS) has been asking the same six questions about abortion since the early 1970s, and their surveys have also found an increase in pro-life sentiment since the mid 1990s. Interestingly, since 2000, the largest gains in pro-life sentiment have been found among young adults.

In fairness, the link between public attitudes toward abortion and the incidence of abortion is not well documented. That said, there is research that shows that the repeat abortion rate has remained fairly steady over the years while the first-time abortion rate has been consistently decreasing. Perhaps the current generation of younger women view abortion differently than previous generations do.

Sexual activity: There is a growing body of evidence that finds reductions in teen sexual activity since the early 1990s. The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) frequently report data on teen sexual activity. Both studies find that the number of sexually active teenagers has declined anywhere from seven to ten percentage points since the early 1990s. Both surveys also find significant declines in the percentage of teenagers who have had multiple sexual partners.

ContraceptionMany analysts credit increases in contraception use with the decline in the abortion rate. It is true that contraception use has increased since the early 1990s. However, contraception use has actually been steadily increasing since the early 1960s, and gains in contraception use did little to stop the rising abortion rate during the 1970s or early 1980s. More important, even though contraceptive use has been increasing, the unintended-pregnancy rate has remained fairly consistent over time and has actually increased slightly since the mid 1990s.

As I discussed on Monday, an analysis of the abortion rate decline between 1990 and 2010 by my Lozier Institute colleague Susan Wills casts doubt on the impact that contraceptives have played in the U.S. abortion decline. The key finding is that the abortion decline has not been uniform among age groups. The declines have been the greatest in both absolute and percentage terms among teens and women in their early 20s. This is important for two reasons. First, long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs), which are touted by Guttmacher, tend to be unpopular with this subset of women. Second, as I mentioned previously there is a solid body of evidence showing declines in teen sexual activity since the early 1990s.

Overall, since the early 1990s there have been gains in pro-life sentiment, pro-life legislation, and decreases in teen sexual activity. These factors may not completely explain the decline in the abortion rate. However, they seem like far more compelling explanations than increases in contraception use.

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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