Last month, two analysts from the think tank Third Way published an opinion piece in U.S. News and World Report claiming that new Trump-administration policies would cause a surge in the abortion rate. They also credited Obama-administration policies with reducing the incidence of abortion. The piece went on to assert that the Trump administration’s decisions to cut the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program and exempt religious employers from the contraceptive-coverage mandate will reverse that progress.
Analyses of abortion trends cited by mainstream media outlets tend to be misleading, and this article was certainly no exception. But, in fact, this Third Way piece appears truly unique in its ability to combine cherry-picked data with exceptionally misleading analysis.
The authors of the op-ed are certainly correct that both the abortion rate and the teen-pregnancy rate declined during the presidency of Barack Obama. However, both of these trends started well before he took office. The U.S. abortion rate has been consistently declining since 1980, and the most recent data (from 2014) indicates that the abortion rate has fallen by over 50 percent over the past 34 years. Furthermore, the decline in the abortion rate has been very consistent, declining during both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. It has declined during economic expansions and economic recessions. Overall, the abortion rate decline during the Obama administration was largely a continuation this long-term trend.
Similarly, teen-pregnancy rates have been steadily declining since the early 1990s. While many are quick to credit increases in teen contraception use, it should be noted that the decline in the teen-pregnancy rate coincides with a consistent decline in teen sexual activity that also began in the early 1990s. According to the National Survey of Family Growth, 60 percent of teenage boys in 1988 reported “ever having sex”; that percentage fell to 44 by 2015. Similarly, the percentage of teenage girls reporting “ever having sex” fell from 51 percent to 42 percent during the same time span.
It is unlikely that Trump-administration policies will affect these trends in the way the Third Way authors suggest. Few sexually active women who forgo contraception cite cost or availability as the reason for doing so. Furthermore, the new HHS policies regarding contraceptive coverage will affect only women who work for religious employers. Additionally, the HHS’s own analysis of sex-education curricula funded by the Obama administration’s Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program found that only a very small percentage of programs resulted in long-term declines in teen-pregnancy rates or teen sexual activity. This is consistent with a broad body of research showing that efforts to encourage contraception use through distribution programs, mandates, and subsidies tend to be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
Third Way takes considerable pains to portray itself as a moderate, centrist organization, but a close look at its positions on sanctity-of-life issues indicates that this is clearly not the case. The group supports federal funding for Planned Parenthood, considers Roe v. Wade to be a “reasonable compromise,” and opposes incremental pro-life laws. In short, its positions are identical to those of groups that support legal abortion, such as NARAL, the Guttmacher Institute, and Planned Parenthood. When it comes to abortion, it seems that Third Way’s primary goal is to put a moderate spin on very left-wing positions. Journalists, pundits, and the general public would do well to take note.