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Abortion Rates Reach an All-Time Low

Abortion rates have been falling for at least a decade. So is that a good thing or a bad thing?

By Kate Wheeling


Supporters of legal access to abortion, as well as anti-abortion activists, rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on March 2nd, 2016. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Just days away from Donald Trump’s inauguration, fears about the future of women’s health protections are at what feels like a high.

Questions abound about how the incoming administration’s regressive reproductive agenda could affect birth and abortion rates; in the meantime, a new survey conducted by the Guttmacher Institute provides some insights: The study found that abortions have reached an all-time low since the practice became legal in 1973. Between 2011 and 2014, the abortion rate in the United States dropped by 14 percent.

Abortion rates have been falling for some time; the Guttmacher Institute found that, between 2008 and 2011, the U.S. abortion rate fell by 13 percent—and both pro-lifers and pro-choice advocates tookcredit for the trend. Up until now, better access to contraception appeared to be the main factor driving down abortions, but the most recent analysis shows that that may be changing.

In the years leading up to 2011, birth rates declined alongside abortion rates, the Institute found, indicating that women weren’t just carrying more pregnancies to term; they were having fewer unintended pregnancies altogether. Coinciding with the drop in the rate of unintended pregnancies was a three-fold increase in the use of long-term forms of contraception, such as IUDs. (By 2012, nearly 12 percent of women on contraceptives opted for an IUD.) Nora Kaplan Bricker reported in Pacific Standard last year on the wide-ranging benefits of the recent resurgence of IUD use among American women:

Unlike more popular types of birth control — condoms and pills, the patch and the ring — these long-acting devices don’t require women and girls to fill a prescription, or to bring along protection every time they have sex. Accordingly, these devices are far more effective at preventing pregnancy. IUDs fail less than one percent of the time. The benefits of widespread adoption are potentially huge: When a privately funded experiment made IUDs and implants available for free across the state of Colorado, both the teen birth rate and the abortion rate dropped by about 40 percent.

Aside from the increased use of long-term contraception, the drop in abortions preceded the bulk of recent restrictions, which were passed or implemented in 2011 or later. But at least some of those restrictions may be helping to drive down abortions rates. Between 2012 and 2014, 22 states passed a total of 47 abortion restrictions that could significantly impact women’s access to the procedure. According to the Guttmacher Institute, those states accounted for just about 38 percent of the decline in the abortion rate. Still, there is no clear relationship between restrictions and reductions. Of the 28 states that didn’t implement any new restrictions, just two of them saw abortion rates increase; of the 22 states with new, stricter laws, four saw their abortion rates rise.

Between 2011 and 2014, the abortion rate in the United States dropped by 14 percent.

Some types of restrictions had a strong correlation with declining abortion rates, however.

Many activists blame targeted regulation of abortion providers, also known as TRAP laws, which they claim have an outsized effect on abortion access. Some of the more well-known TRAP laws include the requirements that doctors who perform abortions have hospital admitting privileges, or that abortion clinics meet the same standards as surgical centers. The Guttmacher Institute explains:

Of the nine states that implemented new TRAP provisions in 2012, 2013 and 2014, eight had higher-than-average declines in the number of clinics offering abortion care. Clinics accounted for about 95% of all abortions during this period (with hospitals and private physicians making up the rest), and a decline in their number can make abortion care less accessible, especially if there are no other abortion providers nearby. Declines in access spurred by TRAP laws may have contributed to lower abortion incidence: Of the nine states with new TRAP restrictions in effect during this period, six had larger-than-average abortion declines, while one state — Michigan — saw a slight increase.

The influence of restrictive abortion laws on women’s health and behavior could become more severe under the incoming administration. President-elect Trump has waffled on his opinion about abortion in the past, stating at once point that he is “very pro-choice,” and arguing at another that women who have abortions should face legal consequences. Vice President-elect and former Indiana Governor Mike Pence, on the other hand, holds some of the most extreme anti-abortion views in the nation; from voting to ban family planning funding in U.S. aid abroad, to voicing support for bans of federal health coverage that covers abortion, to passing laws in Indiana that criminalized fetal tissue collection (which is vital for life-saving research). If left to his own devices, Pence would even overturn the Supreme Court decision protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. “We’ll see Roe v. Wade consigned to the ash heap of history where it belongs,” he said at a Town Hall event in July.

In reality, abortion restrictions do little except force women to attempt potentially dangerous, often self-induced abortions—a trend we’re already seeing in Texas, which has some of the strictest abortion laws in the country.