What the Reported Drop in US Abortion Rate Really Means

Overall, the numbers reflect more resources for pregnant women, a decline in teen pregnancies and more contraceptive use.

(photo: Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — A reported drop in the U.S. abortion rate by the Guttmacher Institute is good news to pro-life leaders, who nevertheless acknowledge that optimism should be tempered.

“The news that there may be fewer abortions taking place in the United States is a great start to the new year, though we have to take the abortion industry’s claims with a grain of salt,” stated Clarke Forsythe, acting president of Americans United for Life.

The accuracy of the numbers could have been affected by the lack of a “national reporting requirement” for facilities, he said.

Charles Camosy, a theology professor at Fordham University, echoed that claim, saying the numbers were “good news,” but cautioned that “a confluence of factors” was behind them.

Abortion rates in the U.S. fell to their lowest recorded level since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the Guttmacher Institute — which provides research and analysis to “advance sexual and reproductive health and rights” — said in a report released Jan. 17.

The rate of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44 in the U.S. fell by 14% from 2011 to 2014, Guttmacher reported, with the current rate at 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. There were 926,200 recorded abortions in 2014 overall, they said.

And the number of pregnancies ending in abortion, excluding miscarriages, also fell by 11% since 2011, the report noted.

This continued a marked decline in the abortion rate, which had already dropped by 13% between 2008 and 2011. The overall abortion rate has seen a steady decline since 1980-81, when it was at its peak of 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women, NPR reported.

Pro-life leaders have welcomed the overall finding of a smaller abortion rate, although they raised some questions about the accuracy of the report.

“That’s the core question,” Chuck Donovan of the Charlotte Lozier Institute told CNA of the accuracy of the numbers. For instance, he noted that California has no reporting of abortion numbers from its state health agency. The report itself states that “we obtained responses from only 58% of facilities that we believed provided abortions in 2014.”

This points to a “crying need” for better reporting of abortion numbers on a state and national level, Donovan said.

Nevertheless, sources that are reporting abortions show a sharp decline in the abortion rate, he emphasized, from state reports to Guttmacher’s report and reports by the Centers for Disease Control.

The biggest cause driving the decline, Guttmacher suggested, could have been the use of contraceptives.

Rachel Jones, principal research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute, told CNA, “We think the most important contributing factor is improvements in contraceptive use … that couples are using contraception more effectively, and, in particular, there are indicators that more women are using long-acting methods such as IUD.”

There was increased utilization of certain contraceptive devices such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs). The “reliance” on those two devices increased by 130% between 2007 and 2009 and “continued, albeit at a slightly slower pace, through 2012,” the Guttmacher Institute said.

Jones added that “fewer women were getting pregnant in 2014 than in 2011. … We think this is because the best available evidence suggests that more women are using highly effective methods, and therefore there [are] fewer unintended pregnancies. So that means more of the pregnancies that do occur are intended. And so, by default, these women chose to get pregnant and they choose to have a baby.”

Other smaller causes for the decline in the abortion rate could have been state laws restricting abortions or regulating abortion centers, Guttmacher said.

“Improved contraceptive use in recent years has led to a decline in the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate, suggesting that women are increasingly able to plan their pregnancies and, therefore, have a decreased need for abortions,” the report stated.

“However, the wave of abortion restrictions passed at the state level over the last five years could also have contributed to the decline, by making it more difficult for women to access needed services in highly restrictive states.”

19 states have passed “pain-capable” bills, or 20-week abortion bans, since 2010. Regulations of abortion facilities have also been passed by several states in the wake of the Kermit Gosnell incident, in which the Philadelphia abortionist was convicted in 2013 on three counts of first-degree murder of babies. Prosecutors described his business as a “house of horrors” full of serious health violations.

There are a “whole host of factors” that could be behind the abortion-rate decline, Donovan said, not just contraception methods. “We think there’s an awful lot going on.”

He pointed to surveys showing young people trending more pro-life, due to an increase in the use and quality of ultrasounds that show a baby in the womb. The violence of abortion is also a turn-off to many young people, he said. A higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term, he added.

Teenage sexual activity has overall decreased, Donovan said, pointing to numbers from the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention showing the percentage of high-school students who had ever had sex declined from 54% in 1991 to 47% in 2013.

There have also been “changing understandings of abortion,” Camosy said. The unborn child was formerly referred to as a “clump of cells,” but the rise of technology such as 3-D ultrasounds has enabled people to see a living, moving child in the womb.

Nevertheless, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards attributed the decline to contraceptives, NPR reported. “It shows that we’re finally doing a better job of helping women get access to birth control that’s affordable and that’s high-quality,” Richards said.

In the Guttmacher report, there was a 14% increase in “early medication abortions” that were “in non-hospital facilities,” like the use of the RU-486 pill in the first eight weeks after gestation. Donovan admitted this is a “worrisome number.”

It is also a “clarion call” for better tracking of the number of abortion injuries, he insisted, as the RU-486 pill can be taken by a mother at home, and the complications or injuries arising from it are “outside of the clinic.”

And only just over half of states require reporting of abortion complications, he said.

Overall, the numbers reflect progress, Donovan said, pointing to factors like more resources for pregnant women as driving more women to carry their children to term.