Women Are Having Fewer Abortions: Here's Why

The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice think thank, but one that is also considered to have most reliable numbers and statistics when it comes to abortion data, has released a study showing that abortion rates are as low as they've ever been since Roe v. Wade (1973). Only 17 of every 1,000 women are having an abortion now (2011 is the latest year that the study has numbers for). This alone is a 13 percent decline since 2008.

Everyone is happy about this. The National Right to Life is "extremely happy" about this development. Pro-choice folks are also optimistic. And that's where things diverge.

The pro-life crowd attributes the decline to the spate of recent restrictive abortion laws that have been passed since the 2010 mid-terms which swept in a number of socially conservative legislators in states like North Carolina and in states, like Texas, which simply grew more conservative. More than that, the pro-lifers claim, their success in turning "partial-birth abortion" into a successful political issue -- i.e., people began to see that abortion was no different, according the pro-life lobby, than infanticide -- as another marker of their success and the subsequent decline of abortion rates.

The pro-lifers are only half-right. Abortion rates have been on a steady decline since 1980, so recent restrictive laws can't be the reason for the recent 13 percent decline. The study by the Guttmacher Institute does not attempt to divine the exact reason why abortion rates are so low, but it does note that the increased use of more reliable forms of birth control, such as IUDs, which have a lower user "error rate" than pills or condoms might have contributed to such.

However, as some commentators have done, we can't assume that the pro-life's groups' talking points are simply "inane." Of course, the NRLC is going to trumpet their recent legislative successes, but we can be fairly sure that, except for a few states, this has not contributed to the decline. In any event, as I've noted before, 1980 is about the time that evangelicals claimed abortion as one of their issues and the pro-life social movement came into bloom. A social movement that has had the success of the pro-lifers cannot be dismissed so easily. Many pundits fail to see the bigger picture. While the pro-life movement has not been successful in its (initial) ultimate goal of overturning Roe, it has been successful at making abortions more difficult to obtain especially for lower-income, rural females in part because there are less clinics (though these are probably the women who need the service the most). One reporter who studied the issue deeply wrote a book contending rather convincingly that the pro-life movement had "won." Others disagree, but the impact of the pro-life social movement cannot be discounted.

Indeed, pro-lifers made the conscious decision to give up on toppling Roe and instead concentrating on more incremental changes both at the state level and reforming the federal judiciary from within to gain more favorable decisions. In this, they have been successful. To give a few examples: in 1992, the Supreme Court, while declining to overturn Roe, lowered the constitutional standard for abortion regulations. In 2007, the Court ruled that partial birth abortions are not afforded protection under the Constitution. Many states have tried to build on these successes in the states with "fetal pain" laws, requiring ultrasounds pre-procedure and the like. Some of these laws have been struck down by the lower federal courts, but eventually at least one will get before the Supreme Court (maybe Texas's abortion law).

All of this is to say this: like any politically-charged group, the pro-life movement will spin the facts in a way that is palatable to their political priors. But it would be foolish to dismiss the movement out of hand. The pro-life social movement has been, all things considered, a successful social movement over the past three-plus decades. The rather moribund, comparatively, pro-choice movement might think about stealing their playbook if they want to reverse the success (depending on how you view a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy vis-a-vis government regulation) of the pro-lifers.

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