As a greater number of Americans have become pro-life over time, political analysts have realized that successful Democratic candidates need to win the support of some pro-life voters — especially in conservative states — in order to achieve victory. As a result, many left-leaning commentators have begun pointing to the declines in the U.S. abortion rate that took place during Democratic presidential administrations.
USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers made this argument when she appeared on CNN last week to discuss the Alabama U.S. Senate election. Powers later tweeted an article from Quartz, which featured a graph depicting fairly stable abortion rates during Republican presidencies and significant abortion-rate declines during Democratic administrations.
But the graph in the Quartz article is misleading for several reasons. It relies on abortion-rate data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which is not always reliable, because federal abortion-reporting requirements are very weak, meaning that the data often are far from comprehensive. More importantly, the large decline in the reported abortion rate during the Clinton administration was largely due to the fact that California — a state with a very high abortion rate — ceased reporting abortion data to the CDC in 1997. This goes unmentioned by the Quartz article.
Guttmacher Institute data — a more comprehensive and reliable resource, since its numbers are taken from direct surveys of clinics and hospitals — show a far more consistent decline in the U.S. abortion rate since 1980. Specifically, the Guttmacher data indicate that there were real abortion-rate reductions during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Even the Guttmacher data show, though, that there were somewhat larger reductions in the incidence of abortion during both the Clinton and Obama administrations than during these three Republican presidencies.
Unsurprisingly, the Quartz article primarily credits increased contraception use for these abortion-rate declines during Democratic presidencies. But while contraception use increased steadily during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the unintended-pregnancy rate remained fairly stable during the same time. More important than use of contraception was the fact that a smaller percentage women with unintended pregnancies chose to obtain an abortion. In 1981, only 54 percent of unintended pregnancies ended in abortion – that number fell to 40 percent by 2008. Unsurprisingly, these statistics have received almost no attention from the mainstream media.
Guttmacher has reported that the unintended-pregnancy rate began to decline around 2008, and many commentators have credited the Health & Human Services Department’s contraceptive mandate, added as a regulation to the Affordable Care Act. These claims, too, should be viewed with caution. For one thing, Guttmacher has previously revised its statistics for unintended-pregnancy rates, so these may not be the final figures. And according to the General Social Survey (GSS), beginning in the year 2000, young adults became significantly less supportive of legalized abortion. While the link between abortion attitudes and abortion rates is not well documented, this is certainly a factor that could be contributing to America’s recent abortion-rate decline.
In the years immediately following the Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. abortion rate increased sharply. Since 1980, though, there has been a steady decline, and recent figures indicate that the abortion rate declined by over 50 percent between 1980 and 2014. Good research shows that an important factor behind this decline is that a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term. Pro-life efforts to enact protective laws, shift public opinion, and meet the needs of women though pregnancy-resource centers all deserve credit.
Unfortunately, many in the media seem more interested in scoring political points by crediting Democratic presidents than in giving U.S. abortion trends the thoughtful and rigorous analysis they deserve. After all, declines in abortion like those we have seen for nearly four decades are applauded by those on both sides of the political aisle.