U.S. Abortion Rate Drops, But What Do the Numbers Mean?

By Rachel Walden — February 7, 2014

The U.S. abortion rate has declined to its lowest levels in four decades, according to a new report from the Guttmacher Institute.

As of 2011, the rate had declined to 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44, almost half of what it was in 1981 (29.3 per 1,000 women) and the lowest since 1973 (16.3 per 1,000).

While the record number of abortion restrictions passed in 2011 may come to mind as a possible cause, the data used largely predate those restrictions.

The Guttmacher report also notes that even states that did not implement new restrictions during the study period also saw declines:

It is crucial to note that abortion rates decreased by larger-than-average amounts in several states that did not implement any new restrictions between 2008 and 2010, such as Illinois (18%) and Oregon (15%). So, even in states like Louisiana and Missouri, we cannot assume that the new restrictions were responsible for the decline in abortion incidence.

More plausible explanations, according to the report, might be the increase in long-acting, highly effective methods of contraception such as IUDs; increasing use of birth control among young women in general; and overall declines in the pregnancy and birth rate.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the surge of restrictions enacted over the past several years will not have a negative impact on women’s access to abortions — it just doesn’t show yet in the data.

Judy Norsigian, Our Bodies Ourselves executive director, had this to say about the numbers:

At this point, it is misleading to suggest that restrictions don’t make a difference.  The restrictions that we are seeing now, after this study was done, are of an entirely different order, because they are causing a dramatic rise in the closing of clinics. Just look at the crisis in Texas now. We know that abortion providers in Texas and other impacted states will continue to do their best to meet the needs of the most vulnerable women who can’t afford to travel to places where abortion services are available, but these providers will face huge obstacles.

It is also important to recognize that although there may be a reduction in the abortion rate overall, the rate rose nearly 18 percent among the country’s poorest women — a trend that might reflect the growing economic challenges facing women now. Of the more than 1.2 million legal abortions reported in 2008, women whose family income fell below the national poverty level accounted for 42 percent of these abortions.

For further exploration of Guttmacher’s results and the reasons behind the numbers, see:

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