Both sides in the abortion debate can welcome this news: The abortion rate among American women has hit its lowest level in more than 30 years.
Thats the finding of a new report on abortions between 2008 and 2011 from the Guttmacher Institute, a private organization that tracks abortion numbers.
The report shows a trend moving toward the goal that President Bill Clinton set in 1996: Abortion should not only be safe and legal , it should be rare.
Its hardly rare yet. There were 1.1 million abortions in 2011, a rate of 16.9 for every 1,000 women of childbearing age. But that rate is down from 19.4 per 1,000 women in 2008. And perhaps more significantly it represents a resumption of a decline after several years of the rate holding steady. The abortion rate is now nearly half of what it was when it peaked in 1981 at 29.3 per 1,000.
Exactly why the rate is declining has not been established. Anti-abortion groups say it reflects their message getting through to a new generation. Conservative legislators who have passed laws reducing access to abortion think that making it harder to get an abortion has moved more pregnant women not to choose the option.
Impact of protests and laws
But these claims are unlikely to explain the drop. No doubt anti-abortion protests and the teachings of the Catholic Church and others do influence how some women respond to an unexpected pregnancy, but those messages have been present since the Supreme Courts decision in Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in 1973. Theres no reason to think the right-to-life message is now having a dramatically new effect.
As for new laws restricting access to abortion, most didnt pass or take until 2011 or after. Their impact will have to be evaluated later.
What appears to be most heavily influencing the decline in abortions is a decline in the condition that precedes them unintended pregnancies. The Guttmacher Institute found that in 2008, 51 percent of pregnancies were unintended and 40 percent of those ended in abortion. Clearly reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies would have a great effect on the rate of abortion.
Birth control expands
The Guttmacher Institutes report notes that the percentage of women under 30 not using contraception dropped from 15 percent to 12 percent between 2007 and 2009. And more women are using long-acting contraceptive devices, such as intrauterine devices, or IUDs, with the percentage among contraceptive users increasing from 2 percent in 2002 to 9 percent in 2009. If the upward trend continued through the study period, it would explain much of the decline in the abortion rate.
If improved birth control is making abortion less frequent, laws cutting access to womens health clinics may actually slow or halt the abortion-rate decline. Such clinics can educate women about long-acting contraceptive options and help them with the costs. Buying and having an IUD inserted can cost up to $1,000.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that the number of unintended pregnancies averted by federally funded family planning programs increased 15 percent between 2006 and 2010 (from 1.9 million to 2.2 million). But some state lawmakers, including those in North Carolina, have tried to cut funding for family planning.
That abortion is becoming more rare in the United States is encouraging, especially because it appears to reflect more women knowing their choices about contraception and having the freedom to make them.