Is it good news that the national abortion rate is at its lowest level since 1973, the year it was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court?
Your reaction will depend on two things: how you feel about abortion and the reasons the rate has fallen.
Has it dropped because so many states have passed new laws aimed at squeezing abortion clinics out of business, and raising so many obstacles that women seeking abortions will simply give up and go home? Or has it dropped because there are fewer unintended pregnancies?
Happily, it appears the decline in the national abortion rate--which peaked in 1981 at 29.3 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 and has dropped to 16.9--has more to do with better contraception than with restrictive laws.
According to a new study by the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, but is (generally) respected by both sides of the debate as a provider of reliable statistics, the national abortion rate dropped 13% between 2008 and 2011, resuming a downward trend that had all but stalled between 2005 and 2008.
Guttmacher researchers Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerman also found no evidence that the overall drop was related to a decrease in providers or to restrictions implemented in the four-year period they analyzed.
"Rather, the decline in abortions coincided with a steep national drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates," wrote Jones, the lead researcher. "Contraceptive use improved during this period, as more women and couples were using highly effective long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, such as the IUD."
This is great news for anyone who believes, as the Clinton-era slogan had it, that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare."
You'd think the report would come as fantastic news to abortion foes as well.
"Guttmacher Institute fails to acknowledge the impact of pro-life legislation, even as it reports Big Abortion's decline," said Americans United for Life in a statement that hit in boxes before the Guttmacher report was even released. Americans United for Life is an influential advocacy group that creates model anti-abortion legislation for states.
The group's president, Charmaine Yoest, called the report "an abortion industry propaganda piece short on data and long on strained conclusions."
Yoest's main quibble is with the study's conclusion that the current crop of restrictive abortion laws are not responsible for the lower abortion rate.
(I guess it's a black eye for the anti-abortion business if they don't get all the credit.)
"What is compelling about this report can be seen on the front page of the Guttmacher Institute website," said Yoest, "where they note the record number of new pro-life laws on the book, while they claim in this report that these measures have no impact."
In the period they studied, Jones and Jerman found that 18 states implemented 44 new abortion laws, but most of those laws did not affect the abortion rate because they focused on issues such as adding new information to counseling requirements, or on restricting later abortions, which comprise only a tiny percentage of the overall number of procedures.
A few states adopted measures that may have contributed to a lower abortion rate, the researchers said. Missouri, for instance, implemented a law in 2009 requiring women seeking abortions to have in-person counseling at least 24 hours before the procedure. That onerous regulation may have contributed to a 17% drop in the state's abortion rate between 2008 and 2010.
But for the most part, the researchers found, the current deluge of restrictive laws—which require doctors to have hospital admitting privileges, or abortion clinics to meet the same building standards as ambulatory care centers, for example—were not in effect during the period in question.
Also—and this directly contradicts Yoest's claim that restrictive laws should get credit--the abortion rate dropped substantially in states with the most liberal abortion laws, including California, New Jersey and New York. In California, which accounts for nearly a fifth of all abortions in the country—182,000 out of 1,028,000 in 2011--the drop, 16%, was greater than the national average.
If you want fewer abortions, the answer is pretty clear: contraception works. Stigmatization and prohibition, not so much.