Reproductive health

American abortion rate drops to the lowest in 40 years

Trend due more to effective contraception than mounting limits on abortion access

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 3:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 5:19pm

The number of abortions performed in the United States has dropped to the lowest level in 40 years, a study said on Monday, pointing to more contraception use rather than increased restrictions on access to the procedure.

In 2011, an estimated 16.9 abortions were carried out per 1,000 women aged between 15 and 44, or 1.1 million in absolute terms.

It was lowest number since 1973, when the figure stood at 16.3 per 1,000, the Guttmacher Institute, which supports legal access to abortion, found.

Guttmacher’s figures are of interest on both sides of the abortion debate because they are more up-to-date and in some ways more comprehensive than abortion statistics compiled by the federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

[It] is heartening because it shows that women are rejecting the idea of abortion as the answer to an unexpected pregnancy
Carol Tobias, pro-life group official

Between 2008 and 2011, the abortion rate fell by 13 per cent, as procedures were performed increasingly earlier in pregnancy.

The study noted that during that same period, the number of abortion providers fell by just 4 per cent and clinics offering the service by just 1 per cent.

The number of abortions had reached a peak in 1981, with 29.3 terminations for every 1,000 women.

“With abortion rates falling in almost all states, our study did not find evidence that the national decline in abortions during this period was the result of new state abortion restrictions,” said Rachel Jones, lead author of the study.

“We also found no evidence that the decline was linked to a drop in the number of abortion providers during this period.”

Instead, the drop coincided with a steep dip in the numbers of overall pregnancy and birth rates.

“Contraceptive use improved during this period, as more women and couples were using highly effective long-acting reversible contraceptive methods,” Jones said.

The devastating economic recession had also prompted many women and couples to delay pregnancy or childbearing.

Since early 2011, many US states have implemented laws making it harder for women to seek abortion – with 205 new restrictions enacted between 2011 and last year, more than the entire decade before.

“As we monitor trends in abortion going forward, it is critical that we also monitor whether these state restrictions are preventing women who need abortion services from accessing them,” said Guttmacher Institute official Elizabeth Nash.

The study was based on analysis from a census of all known abortion providers in the United States and will appear in the March this year issue of the Guttmacher Institute’s Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

Anti-abortion activists welcomed the reported dip in the numbers, insisting it validated their campaigning.

“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,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life group.

“Overall, 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 mothers and their children are having a tremendous impact.”

Americans United for Life, another anti-abortion group engaged in the efforts to pass restrictive state laws, said Guttmacher’s numbers should be viewed sceptically because they are based on voluntary self-reporting by abortion providers.

“It is impossible really to know the true abortion rate,” said the group’s president, Charmaine Yoest.

The report marked the 16th time since 1973, when abortion was legalised nationwide, that Guttmacher has attempted to survey all known abortion providers in the United States. However, a section of the new report acknowledges that some abortions might not be tallied.

The highest abortion rates were in New York, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware and New Jersey; the lowest were in Wyoming, Mississippi, South Dakota, Kentucky and Missouri.

However, Guttmacher said many women in Wyoming and Mississippi, where providers are scarce, go out of state to get abortions.

With additional reporting from the Associated Press