As the Supreme Court deliberates over one of the most critical abortion rights cases of the last several decades, a newly-published study has revealed findings with profound implications for the abortion debate as a whole: In contrast to what abortion opponents claim, recent reductions in the U.S. abortion rate are attributable almost entirely to a historic drop in unintended pregnancies —and not at all to restricted abortion care access.
In 2014, the Guttmacher Institute released an analysis showing that, between 2008 and 2011, the abortion rate in the U.S. dropped 13 percent, reaching the lowest level since 1973. Ever since, anti-abortion activists have relentlessly tried to take credit for the decline, claiming that recent state-level abortion restrictions and a growing “culture of life” were compelling more women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term rather than choosing abortion. Logically, this argument is incoherent: the drop in abortion (from 2008-2011) predated the recent onslaught of abortion restrictions, the first of which didn’t even start to go into effect until 2011-2012. What’s more, the abortion rates declined in 44 states and the District of Columbia, including many with few if any restrictions, such as California and New York.
However, this hasn’t stopped prominent anti-choice groups from continuing to push the narrative that anti-abortion laws were responsible for the decline in abortions:
“That abortion rates and numbers continue to decline is heartening because it shows that women are rejecting the idea of abortion as the answer to an unexpected pregnancy,” Carol Tobias, president of the anti-choice group National Right to Life, remarked at the time. “This latest report from Guttmacher shows the long-term efforts of the right-to-life movement to educate the country about the humanity of the unborn child and to enact laws that help children and their mothers are having a tremendous impact.”
But now, we have even clearer evidence disproving this critical anti-abortion talking point: According to new research conducted at the Guttmacher Institute and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the abortion rate is declining not because fewer women are choosing to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, but because fewer women are accidentally getting pregnant in the first place, thanks to improved access to contraceptives.
“We now know that abortion declined primarily because of fewer unintended pregnancies, and not because fewer women decided to end an unwanted pregnancy.”
The analysis, which looked at previously collected data from several sources, revealed that the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate declined by a staggering 18 percent between 2008 and 2011, bringing it to the lowest it’s been in more than 30 years. The study’s authors attributed the decline in unintended pregnancies to a corresponding increase in women’s use of effective contraceptives, noting that the two-thirds of women who consistently and correctly use some form of contraceptives account for only 5 percent of all unintended pregnancies. The authors also cited research revealing that the use of highly effective, long-acting reversible contraceptives, like IUDs and implants, more than tripled between 2007 and 2012, paralleling the drop in unintended pregnancy. As the report notes, this pattern is similar to what researchers observed with the drop in the teen pregnancy rate several years before:
In short, the evidence is considerable that more and better contraceptive use is the key driver of the 2008–2011 declines in unintended pregnancy and abortion. These trends among all U.S. women appear to echo earlier trends that have helped drive pregnancy, birth and abortion rates among U.S. teens to record lows. Research shows that the teen pregnancy declines between 1995 and 2002 were overwhelmingly the result of improvements in contraceptive use, with contraception accounting for 86 percent of the decline (and teens delaying sex for the remaining 14 percent). Even more so, the continued teen pregnancy declines between 2003 and 2010—a period with no changes in teen sexual activity—were entirely due to contraceptive use.
The most telling finding, however, was that the proportion of unintended pregnancies that end in abortion remained relatively constant throughout the entire study period— indicating that, when faced with an unintended pregnancy, U.S. women are not, in fact, shifting toward choosing motherhood over abortion. As the Guttmacher researchers explained:
There is now strong evidence that the 2008–2011 abortion decline was not the result of more women carrying unintended pregnancies to term because of state abortion restrictions or of their own accord, as abortion opponents have repeatedly argued. If this had been the case, fewer women who experienced an unintended pregnancy would have obtained an abortion and there would have been an increase in unplanned births. Neither of these happened during 2008–2011. Rather, the proportion of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion stayed stable (40 percent in 2008, 42 percent in 2011), while the unplanned birth rate declined by 18 percent.
“These findings provide significant new clarity for the U.S. abortion debate,” said Joerg Dreweke, a researcher at the Guttmacher Institute who wrote a policy analysis accompanying the new study. “We now know that abortion declined primarily because of fewer unintended pregnancies, and not because fewer women decided to end an unwanted pregnancy.”
“[P]olicymakers who wish to see fewer abortions occur [should] focus on making contraceptive care more available by increasing funding and stopping attacks on all family planning providers.”
This study adds to a growing line of research that undermines the fundamental premises of anti-abortion laws. For example, while abortion opponents claim that mandatory abortion waiting periods and forced ultrasounds are necessary to ensure that women understand the decision they are making and take enough time to think about it, research shows that they actually have no impact on women’s decisions about abortion.
That’s because, despite what anti-abortion activists claim, the vast majority of women who choose to terminate a pregnancy have already spent a great deal of time considering their options and are confident about their choice by the time they go to have the procedure. More than nine in ten women say they are completely sure of their decision by the time they seek pre-abortion counseling. Furthermore, very few women express regret or doubt about their decision, and approximately three out of four of women say that “nothing” could have changed their decision to have an abortion.
When access to legal abortion is restricted, women don’t stop having abortions; they just stop having safe abortions. In fact, a recent study conducted in Texas found that up to 240,000 women have attempted to self-induce abortion in the years following the passage of HB2, the sweeping abortion restrictions that are now being challenged in the Supreme Court case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. If the restrictions under HB2 are upheld by the Supreme Court, Texas will be left with ten abortion clinics in a state with 5.4 million women of reproductive age, leaving 500 miles between San Antonio and the New Mexico border without a single clinic.
So let’s hope the Court follows the evidence and listens to what women’s health experts and reproductive rights advocates have been saying all along: that the best way to reduce abortion is not by placing more and more unnecessary restrictions on the procedure, but by helping women prevent unplanned pregnancies in the first place by ensuring access to affordable family planning and contraceptive services — and not trying to defund Planned Parenthood, one of the largest providers of low-cost reproductive and sexual health care in the country.
“In short, supporting and expanding women’s access to family planning services not only protects their health and rights, it also reduces abortion rates,” Dreweke said. “The clear implication for policymakers who wish to see fewer abortions occur is to focus on making contraceptive care more available by increasing funding and stopping attacks on all family planning providers.”