NPR reported this month that the U.S. abortion rate has hit its lowest level since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. When Roe was passed, the abortion rate was 16.3 per 1,000 women aged 15-to-44 and in 2014, it fell to 14.6. The findings were from the research group Guttmacher Institute, which supports legalized abortions. This might be welcomed news for pro-lifers, but the findings paint a complex picture of what is contributing to the reduction in abortions.
For starters, the report mentions both increased contraceptive use and punitive state measures factor into the decline. The U.S. unintended pregnancy rate fell between 2008 and 2011, with 45 percent of pregnancies in 2011 being unplanned, compared to 51 percent in 2008. For women between 15 and 44 years old, the rate fell by 18% (54 per 1,000 in 2008, to 45 in 2011.) The rate of teen pregnancies fell by 25 percent in that period. And the percentage of unintended pregnancies that led to abortion stayed consistent (40 percent to 42 percent).
Although state restrictions on abortions were included in the findings, there was not a “clear and consistent” connection between state restrictions and declining abortion rates. More than half of women in 25 states live in counties without an abortion clinic, but Rachel Jones, one of the authors of the report, stated that “having fewer clinics didn’t always translate into having fewer abortions.”
“For example, the number of clinics in the Midwest declined 22% during the study period, while the abortion rate in that region declined 9%,” she said. “But in the Northeast, the number of clinics increased 14% and the abortion rate declined 11% between 2011 and 2014.”
Rachel Jones explained that an increase in contraception use is the best explanation for why “abortion is going down, and births aren’t going up.” The growing rate of long-term birth control options, like IUDs (intrauterine devices) and subdermal hormonal implants coupled with a declining birthrate, backs up her explanation.
And maybe, just maybe, this shift is the result of what economics call “equilibrium.” The market, in this case society, is merely returning back to a balanced abortion rate. The abortion rate quickly increased in the years following Roe v. Wade, eventually decreasing in the early 80’s. The abortion rate has been steadily declining since then.
Before Roe, the abortion rate was low, although some states had started legalizing the practice. The sudden increase in abortion rates was due to Roe, but to advances in abortion procedures that made it more accessible and safer. An example of this “equilibrium” effect after legalization can be seen in Portugal. In 2001, Portugal completely reformed their drug policy. Personal drug possession is no longer considered a criminal offense, instead it’s an administrative offense. People caught with drugs are sent to “commissions for the dissuasion of drug addiction,” where the panel decides what punishment (if any) the person should receive. Around 19% (as of 2011) of cases are given a penalty, which includes medical addiction treatment, community service, or simply checking in with the family doctor.
As is expected, once these reforms kicked in the drug use rate increased. But it eventually decreased to pre-2001 levels. The same can be said of Prohibition in the 1920’s. Alcohol consumption increased after Prohibition was repealed, but equaled out in the next few decades. It increased during the 80’s, only to decrease and remain the same since then.
For pro-lifers such as myself, this means a few things. First off, abortion is more complex than either side would like to acknowledge. It’s not merely an issue of implementing anti-abortion measures locally. Second, with social opinion shifting toward pro-choice, the pro-life movement might have to switch up its tactics if it wants to continue the fight against abortion. Pushing for greater contraceptive accessibility and education might be needed if legal options are out of the picture. Either way, the reality that abortion rates are dropping should be good news for all.