In late November, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released updated abortion data for the year 2015. Overall, the news was good. The number of abortions fell by 2 percent between 2014 and 2015 and there was a 24 percent decline since 2006. This reduction coupled with the recent confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court resulted in more coverage of this data than usual. This week, both Vox and The Economist ran articles analyzing the decline.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, both stories largely credit increases in contraception use for the reduction in the U.S. abortion rate. However, this is, at best, an incomplete explanation. To their credit, both articles do mention possible factors. Both articles acknowledge that increases in the number of state-level pro-life laws might be playing a role. Sarah Kliff, writing for Vox, cites a blogpost I wrote for National Review about increases in pro-life sentiment among millennials.
However, neither article cites a very important factor behind the 50 percent decline in the U.S. abortion rate since 1980. Namely, that a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term. According to data from the Guttmacher Institute, in 1981, 54 percent of unintended pregnancies resulted in an abortion. That number fell to 42 percent by 2008.
Furthermore, a cursory look at trends in the unintended-pregnancy rate clearly indicates that other factors besides contraception use are at play. The unintended-pregnancy rate in the United States was fairly stable during the 1980s, 1990s, and the early 2000s. There is some evidence that the unintended-pregnancy rate started to fall in 2008. However, that short-term decline fails to explain why the abortion rate in the United States has been declining since 1980.
The increase in the percentage of unintended pregnancies carried to term is a statistic that pro-lifers should cite more often. Even though pro-lifers have not succeeded in overturning Roe v. Wade, we have been effective in other ways. These statistics clearly indicate that pro-life political, educational, and service efforts have been effective. Furthermore, they provide a useful counter-narrative to the media’s ongoing spin that greater contraception use is always responsible for America’s abortion decline.