This past December, the CDC released abortion numbers for the year 2011. The CDC’s figures indicated that among states consistently reporting data, the number of abortions fell by 4.6 percent between 2010 and 2011. This is consistent with the long term decline in the number of abortions performed since 1990. In fact, America’s abortion decline has been remarkably durable: Abortion numbers have continued to fall regardless of demographic trends, the strength of the economy, or which party controls the White House.
Of course, as pro-lifers are quick to point out, the CDC’s abortion-reporting requirements are notoriously weak. California, to take just one example, has not reported any abortion data to the CDC in over 15 years. That said, the abortion-trend data provided to the CDC correlates strongly with abortion-trend data released by the Guttmacher Institute, which has a more consistent data-collection mechanism. And the 2011 decline is fairly consistent among states, so it’s unlikely that it was caused by yearly idiosyncrasies or changes in reporting requirements. In fact, the number of abortions fell in 42 of the 46 states that released data in both 2010 and 2011.
Why are abortion numbers falling? Pro-life legislation is playing a role. This past September, State Politics and Policy released a study of mine which shows that a range of state-level pro-life laws have resulted in lower abortion rates. But abortion numbers are falling everywhere—even in states that have not been active in passing pro-life legislation. Many credit contraception, but despite increased contraceptive use, the unintended pregnancy rate has remained fairly constant over the long term. Much of the decline is due to the fact that a higher percentage of women with unintended pregnancies are carrying them to term.
What bodes especially well for the future is that the abortion rate among pregnant minors has fallen faster than the overall rate. Since repeat abortions make up a significant fraction of abortions, this decline among teens likely predicts future abortion declines. Interestingly, social scientists have struggled to provide a definitive explanation for the decline in teen abortions. There is good evidence from both Guttmacher and the CDC that teen sexual activity is declining. Some social scientists have speculated that the popularity of television shows such as Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant is playing a role. Others have argued that because of Facebook and other social-media platforms, this generation of teens tends to be more risk averse.
As pro-lifers gather in Washington, D.C., for the March for Life today, we should take heart. Just 25 years ago, abortion numbers were rising and we were losing ground in the court of public opinion. The turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable. Today’s pro-life movement is younger, more organized, and more media-savvy. We have made impressive long-term gains in the court of public opinion. The declines in teen pregnancy and abortion rates bode well for the future. And the consistent decline in the total number of abortions performed is the best evidence yet that pro-life efforts are changing hearts and minds.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan—Dearborn and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. He will be one of the guys with a pro-life sign at Thursday’s March for Life. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New