Behind the Abortion Decline
Coinciding with this month’s 35th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling that legalized abortion, a new study shows that the United States continues to make progress on reducing the abortion rate. The progress would be greater if more was done to avoid unintended pregnancies.
Between 2000 and 2005, the last year in the study by the Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions performed yearly dropped from 1.3 million to 1.2 million, the fewest since 1974. The proportion of pregnancies ending in abortion also declined significantly.
Abortion opponents like the National Right to Life Committee seized upon the numbers as vindication for their strategy of demonizing abortion and making it harder for women to obtain one. Many states now mandate counseling sessions beforehand. But a harder look at the data suggests another explanation.
Almost two-thirds of the decline in the total number of abortions can be traced to eight jurisdictions with few or no abortion restrictions — New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, California, Oregon, Washington State and the District of Columbia. These are places, notes the Guttmacher Institute’s president, Sharon Camp, that have shown a commitment to real sex education, largely departing from the Bush administration’s abstinence-only approach. These jurisdictions also help women avoid unintended pregnancies by making contraception widely available.
The lesson: prevention works. Restrictions on abortion serve mainly to hurt poor women by postponing abortions until later in pregnancy. While shifting social mores may change some people’s behavior, the best practical strategy for reducing abortions is to focus on helping women avoid unwanted pregnancies.
One of the most intriguing findings of the abortion study has to do with RU-486, which allows women to safely terminate a pregnancy in its first weeks without surgery. Guttmacher Institute researchers found that a significant decline in the number of abortion providers over the past decade is being offset by an increase in providers that offer the drug.
This growing access, along with refinements in ultrasound imaging help explain the positive trend toward earlier abortions. It has long been true that nearly 90 percent of abortions in this country occur in the first trimester, but the number that occur within the first eight weeks of pregnancy has increased sharply.
Still, in 2005 about one in five pregnancies ended in abortion, emphasizing the need for a national emphasis on better sex education and access to contraception.