The Puzzling Decline in Abortions

Researchers Debate: Is Contraception the Cause?

Babies are baptized in Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Babies are baptized in Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Tbilisi, Georgia. (photo: REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili)

MOSCOW — Abortion is declining in some countries around the world, and the statistics are startling in some places.

In Russia, whose population is apparently in a death spiral, for example, the abortion rate has fallen from 126.6 per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 1988 to 38 in 2008 (1.2 million abortions).

With United Nations demographers predicting the nation’s population will shrink by 23 million in the next 40 years, after falling 11 million over the past 16 years, the government of Vladimir Putin has offered $11,000 grants to families who have two children. Some regions of the vast country made Sept. 12 “Family Contact Day,” urging couples to stay home and do their best to make children.

In Italy, meanwhile, abortions peaked in 1982 with nearly 345,000 performed that year (17.2 per 1,000 women of childbearing age).

In India, in mid-September the government reported the country’s abortion numbers at 640,000 in 2008, down from 680,000 the previous year. Abortions appear to have peaked in absolute terms in 2001 with 770,000, according to the private abortion statistics-keeping website, But the abortion rate peaked much earlier — in 1988, at a relatively low 3.4 abortions per year per 1,000 women of childbearing age, according to the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute. (By comparison, both Guttmacher and JohnstonArchives report the U.S. abortion rate peaking in 1980 at just over 29, falling to 19.4 by 2005.)

A recent report of long-term trends in Japan shows steady decline in the abortion rate since 2001, when it peaked at 13 per 1,000 women of childbearing age, to the most recent recorded year, 2005, when it sank to 9.6.

An anecdotal survey of doctors recently reported that the decline is continuing. Japanese academics attribute the downturn to increased use of contraceptives, especially morning-after pills.

Contraception Credited

Abortion has been declining since the 1980s in all but a handful of countries, according to both and the Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher, which was created as Planned Parenthood’s research arm, believes that widening use of contraception explains the decline.

“When we look at where contraceptives became more available, it matches where the abortion rate falls,” said Gilda Sedgh, senior research associate at Guttmacher. According to the institute’s 2009 report, “Abortion Worldwide: A Decade of Uneven Progress,” the abortion rate worldwide fell from 35 per 1,000 women of childbearing age per year in 1988 to 26 in 2008.

In what Guttmacher terms more developed countries, abortions dropped from 39 to 23, while in less developed countries abortions declined from 34 to 27.

As well, Sedgh cites Guttmacher data to argue that laws restricting abortion don’t reduce their number, only their safety. The data show comparable abortion rates in countries with and without restrictions.

Pro-life organizations and experts disagree about the contraceptive explanation.

Brian Clowes of Human Life International says the figures indicating widespread decline in abortion numbers are believable but misleading. “In some cases they are showing a drop in the number of abortions and not the rate,” he said. “Those numbers are down because there are fewer fertile women.”

But Clowes believes the drop in numbers mostly conceals the replacement of surgical abortions with chemical ones, especially RU-486 or the morning-after pill, which also acts as an abortifacient.

Abortion numbers are being underreported for a third reason, says Clowes. “Especially in Holland and India women are routinely having their uteruses vacuumed at regular intervals whether they know they are pregnant or not.”

And since they don’t know, “it’s not counted as an abortion.”

Clowes referred to vacuum aspiration, an abortion procedure much lauded by Planned Parenthood and Guttmacher. In the situations he cited, it’s referred to as “menstrual extraction.”

Clowes discounts claims by Guttmacher, the U.N. and other organizations that contraceptives are reducing the abortion rate. Clowes argues that contraceptive use may have the opposite effect. “Contraceptives never have worked properly. One in 12 condoms fails. The advertising campaigns in the Third World promise 100% effectiveness and create overconfidence. That is why the HIV/AIDS infection rates are lowest in Muslim and Catholic countries in Africa — condom use is lowest there.”

University of Alabama political science professor and pro-life researcher Michael New is also skeptical. He notes that one of the Guttmacher studies which made the contraception argument not only found countries where the abortion rate declined when contraception became more available, but “also found countries where abortion rates went up after contraception availability increased” — the United States, Cuba, Denmark, the Netherlands, Singapore and South Korea.

“This particular Guttmacher study,” argued New, “fails to consider how the availability of contraception affects sexual behavior and how a more permissive sexual culture will result in a higher incidence of abortion.”

New offers alternative explanations for the abortion decline in Eastern Europe: Abortions got more expensive, the economy improved, and abortion was restricted.

Restrictions Work

New also challenges Guttmacher’s argument that similar abortion rates in restrictive and non-restrictive countries prove the ineffectiveness of restrictions. The more restrictive countries are mostly underdeveloped ones where “poverty rates and various social pathologies may increase the need for abortion” in spite of the contrary laws. In other words, Guttmacher is comparing apples and oranges.

A better test would be to follow abortion rates before and after restrictions are imposed or removed. New has been doing just that in the United States, which has seen a steady toughening of laws in many states over the past decades while abortion rates have declined. He reports a clear correlation between a reduced abortion rate and the creation of informed consent and parental-involvement laws as well as removal of public funding.

On the other hand, Guttmacher argued from its 2008 study of declining abortion levels in the United States that because two-thirds of the decline occurred in states without restrictions this proved the restrictions were meaningless.

But this too could be an apples-and-oranges argument. Those states in the study with few restrictions included the most populous, such as New York and California, which also had the highest abortion rates to begin with.

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.