Better birth control, not tighter laws, drives the abortion decline

The number of abortions in North Carolina has been dropping sharply even as Republican legislators step up efforts to make the procedure more difficult to obtain.

The decline was documented in an Associated Press survey of 45 states that keep abortion records. North Carolina had the nation’s second-biggest drop with the number of abortions falling 26 percent from 2010 to 2013. Nationwide, the survey showed a decrease in abortions of about 12 percent since 2010.

Right-to-life advocates say the numbers show that their message is getting through and that fewer women are choosing abortion. Presumably, the new state law expanding the abortion waiting period from 24 to 72 hours will allow for more reflection as well as more frustration.

There’s no evidence that women choosing against abortion because of new state restrictions are numerous enough to account for the drop. The Associated Press survey found that abortions also were down in states that haven’t tightened their laws. The biggest decrease in abortion, percentage-wise, was in Hawaii, a state with relatively liberal abortion policies.

The only states to buck the national trend by posting double-digit increases in abortion since 2010 are Republican-led Louisiana and Michigan. Both states have passed abortion restrictions, but both also had an influx of women from their neighboring states – Texas and Ohio, respectively – that passed even tougher restrictions that have forced some abortion clinics to close.

Falling pregnancy rate

What is accounting for the decrease in abortions is a decrease in the condition that precedes an abortion: pregnancy. In North Carolina, according to the latest statistics available, reported pregnancies dropped from 148,922 in 2010 to 139,582 in 2013. Abortions likewise fell from 30,952 to 22,820.

Teen pregnancies is down significantly. In North Carolina, the 2013 pregnancy rate for girls 15 to 19 was less than half what it was in 2000.

The Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, reported last year that the U.S. abortion rate had hit its lowest level since 1973, the year the Supreme Court legalized abortion. The rate fell 13 percent between 2008 and 2011, before Republican-led states passed hundreds of new abortion restrictions.

Focus on contraception

The abortion debate – emotional and polarized – is unlikely to end even as the abortion rate slides. But what seems to be emerging is that, instead of restricting women’s rights through restricting access to abortion, lawmakers in North Carolina and nationwide should be expanding women’s access to sex education and contraception.

“The key is to avoid unintended pregnancies, not closing clinics,” says Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst with the Guttmacher Institute.

In Hawaii, where abortions fell from 3,064 in 2010 to 2,147 in 2014, Laurie Temple Field, government relations director for Planned Parenthood in Hawaii, said more women there were getting access to health insurance and affordable, long-term contraception thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid. She also said sex education in public schools is contributing to the decline by teaching teens how to avoid unplanned pregnancies.

The trend toward wider use of contraceptives might have been accelerated by the nation’s deep recession. Women who wanted to put off the expense of a child turned to contraceptives. Planned Parenthood said its health centers reported a 91 percent increase since 2009 in the use of IUDs and contraceptive implants, the AP report said.

The way to further reduce abortion in North Carolina isn’t to cut funding for Planned Parenthood but to increase funding for sex education and contraception.