News & Politics

National Abortion Rate Sees Huge Drop As More Women Are Using Birth Control

Fewer women are getting pregnant because of expanded access to contraception.

Between 2008 and 2011, the national abortion rate declined by 13 percent, according to a new report from the Guttmacher Institute that will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health journal. That puts 2011′s abortion rate at 16.9 abortions per every 1,000 women of reproductive age, the lowest rate recorded since Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure in 1973.

The anti-choice community celebrated the news, claiming that an increasing number of women are choosing to carry their pregnancies to term. “This is a post-sonogram generation,” Charmaine Yoest, the president of the conservative Americans United for Life group that helps push state-level abortion restrictions, told the Washington Post. “There is increased awareness throughout our culture of the moral weight of the unborn baby. And that’s a good thing.”

“It shows that women are rejecting the idea of abortion as the answer to an unexpected pregnancy,” Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, agreed.

In fact, that perspective doesn’t actually align with the research in this area. Previous studies have found that sonograms don’t actually change women’s minds about having an abortion. And the Guttmacher’s new report concludes that the abortion rate isn’t declining because fewer women are choosing abortion in favor of giving birth to a child; rather, it’s because fewer women are getting pregnant in the first place.

“The decline in abortions coincided with a steep national drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates,” Rachel Jones, the lead author of Guttmacher’s study, explained in a statement accompanying the new report. “Contraceptive use improved during this period, as more women and couples were using highly effective, long-acting reversible contraceptive methods, such as the IUD. Moreover, the recent recession led many women and couples to want to avoid or delay pregnancy and childbearing.”

It’s also important to note that a drop in abortions shouldn’t necessarily be considered a positive thing, depending on the circumstances. As states have imposed an increasing number of harsh state-level restrictions on the procedure, many women — especially economically disadvantaged individuals and communities of color — have struggled to exercise their right to choose. Many of those women end up giving birth not because they didn’t want an abortion, but because they simply could not access one. For instance, harsh anti-abortion laws in Texas are projected to result in 22,000 women losing access to safe and legal abortion this year alone.

The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks state-level attacks on abortion, is well aware of this reality. Since the bulk of the wave of new abortion restrictions were enacted after 2011, the group’s most recent report didn’t find a clear connection between harsh state laws and declining abortion rates. But, according to the researchers, “this does not mean these laws are not problematic.”

“Increased regulation of abortion contributes to the stigmatization of abortion and of the women who obtain one, and can create a climate of fear and hostility even in states where such regulations are not imposed,” the study’s authors conclude. “Because state legislatures continued to debate and enact more restrictive abortion measures throughout 2011, 2012 and 2013, future research will need to examine whether and to what extent these laws affect abortion incidence and access to services.”

Other aspects of reproductive health care have shifted since 2011, too. Obamacare’s contraceptive coverage officially took effect, which has helped expand U.S. women’s access to affordable birth control. But Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards was quick to note that this birth control provision has also been under attack, something that could jeopardize the current downward trend in unintended pregnancy rates.

“This report comes just as some politicians and corporations are trying to make it harder for women to get birth control by chipping away at the historic benefit in the Affordable Care Act that requires insurance plans to cover birth control without a copay,” Richards said in a statement, referring to several legal challenges against Obamacare that are currently up before the Supreme Court.

Tara Culp-Ressler is the Health Editor for ThinkProgress. Before joining the ThinkProgress team, Tara deepened her interest in progressive politics from a faith-based perspective at several religious nonprofits, including Faith in Public Life, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and Interfaith Voices.

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