Last month’s Guttmacher Institute report on the incidence of abortion, which appeared in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, contained mostly good news for the pro-life movement. The Guttmacher researchers found that between 2000 and 2008, the abortion rate declined by 8 percentage points. Even though abortion data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is not as current, their figures seem broadly similar to the figures reported by Guttmacher. All in all, this research provides further evidence that the incidence of abortion has continued its steady decline since peaking in the early 1990s.
Some of the more interesting findings from this study have received relatively little attention from mainstream media outlets. For instance, even though the abortion rate has declined for most demographic groups, the largest decline has taken place among African-American women. The abortion rate for minors also continued to fall dramatically, declining by 22 percent between 2008 and 2008. The abortion rate among married women is dramatically less than the abortion rate for women who either cohabit or have never been married. Finally, women with no religious affiliation have a higher abortion rate than those who identify with some religion.
The one finding that has received considerable media attention is that between 2000 and 2008, the abortion rate increased substantially among women below the poverty line. According to the study, low-income women accounted for 42 percent of all abortions in 2008, and their abortion rate increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2008. What is somewhat puzzling is that this finding is not consistent across racial and ethnic groups. The abortion rate for low-income white women increased dramatically between 2000 and 2008, but the rate for low-income black women increased only slightly and the rate for low income Hispanic women actually fell. The authors fail to adequately explain these racial disparities
Regardless, these broad trends can be partly explained by looking at the enactment of state-level pro-life laws. Between 2000 and 2008, there was an increase in the number of states with parental-involvement laws and women’s-right-to-know laws. However, at the state level, pro-lifers have not made much progress lately on the public funding of abortion. This is because most of the dozen states that publicly fund abortion through Medicaid do so because of judicial rulings. Since plenty of studies show that the public funding of abortion increases abortion rates, this might explain why pro-life progress has stalled among low-income women.
In their analysis, the Guttmacher researchers focus on the increase in the abortion rate among low-income women. Not surprisingly, they blame a lack of access to contraception. However, this particular study does not provide any evidence that lack of access to contraception is responsible for the increase in the abortion rate for low-income women. In a public statement one of the Guttmacher researchers stated that “cuts to publicly funded family planning services disproportionately affect poor women.” But again, the study fails to cite any specific spending cuts. If anything, it appears that federal spending for contraception increased during this time period, as federal grants to Planned Parenthood increased from $165 million in 1998 to $363 million in 2008.
This raises an interesting question. Could the increase in federal funds to Planned Parenthood be responsible for this increase in the abortion rate among low-income women? It is possible that women who are more confident in the reliability of their contraceptives may engage in sexual activity more often. More importantly, money is fungible, and the federal funds that Planned Parenthood receives for contraception programs could certainly free up other money that could then subsidize abortions for low-income earners. The increase in the incidence of abortion among low-income women is an interesting puzzle for public-health scholars and social scientists to solve. However, the increase in federal grant money to Planned Parenthood since 2000 renders it unlikely that lack of access to contraception is the culprit behind the increase.
Another interesting facet of the study is the fact that the timeframe analyzed nearly coincides with the presidency of George W. Bush. Now, obviously there is not much that any sitting president can do about abortion rates in the short term. But that has certainly not stopped liberal commentators from lavishly praising President Clinton for the 1990s abortion decline or sharply criticizing President Reagan for the slight uptick in the abortion rate that occurred in the 1980s. In the interest of honesty and fairness, will these same commentators give President Bush some credit for this abortion decline? Consider me skeptical.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.