Two weeks ago, the Guttmacher Institute released a study examining why the abortion rate in America is the lowest it’s been since 1973. The study specifically examined the abortion decline from 2008-2011, which came immediately before a nationwide surge in pro-life legislation.
“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. We also found no evidence that the decline was linked to a drop in the number of abortion providers during this period…Rather, the decline in abortions coincided with a steep national drop in 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, such as the IUD. Moreover, the recent recession led many women and couples to want to avoid or delay pregnancy and childbearing.”
Now, it certainly is well established that our national birth rate is not as high as it used to be, and it’s no secret contraceptive use is increasingly common. However, Guttmacher’s assertion is, more or less, that people who would have had abortions in years past are now simply avoiding pregnancy altogether.
We decided to test that hypothesis by looking at the abortion and birth rates for Arkansas. The results are not as simple as Guttmacher would have us believe.
How Can You Tell People Are Switching from Abortion to Contraceptive?
There’s an easy way to tell if abortion’s decline is simply the result of increased contraceptive use: Compare the abortion rate with the birth rate.
If the abortion rate drops while the birth rate stays the same or drops, that demonstrates that people are simply choosing avoid pregnancy altogether rather than get pregnant and have an abortion.
If the abortion rate and the birth rate both rise, that would seem to indicate people aren’t using contraceptive.
If, however, the birth rate rises while the abortion rate falls, that would indicate people are choosing neither contraception nor abortion.
We crunched numbers for Arkansas obtained from the CDC and the Arkansas Department of Health’s office of Vital Statistics. Here is what we found.
#1. The Answer Isn’t Cut and Dry
Our CDC and Arkansas Department of Health numbers ran from 1980 to 2012. During that time, the abortion rate and the birth rate rose and fell from year to year. There is no guarantee from one year to the next the abortion rate and the birth rate are going to show a clear relationship. There are just too many variables.
#2. Some “Big Picture” Trends Emerge
If you look at the “big picture,” a couple of trends do seem to emerge in Arkansas’ birth and abortion statistics.
First, both Arkansas’ abortion rate and Arkansas’ annual number of abortions have been on the decline since 1991. The numbers rise and fall a little from year to year, but if you chart it, abortion is declining.
Arkansas’ birth rate spiked significantly multiple times from 1991 to 2012. From 2001 to 2008, for instance, the birth rate in Arkansas climbed dramatically. If the decline in abortion were solely the result of people preventing pregnancy altogether through contraception, we wouldn’t expect to see such a drastic rise in births.
#3. Guttmacher Ignores Critical Years
The Guttmacher Institute’s claim abortion has declined because people are preventing pregnancy hinges on the fact that from 2008 – 2011 the birth rate dropped. But look at the chart above. From 2004 – 2007, the birth rate in Arkansas rose dramatically before dropping from 2008 to 2012.
So from 2004 to 2012 the birth rate in Arkansas rose dramatically and dropped dramatically. Meanwhile, the abortion rate remained on roughly the same downward trend the whole time. Did the birth rate begin to spike in 2004 because contraceptives suddenly became less available? If the birth rate dropped from 2008 to 2011 because of access to contraceptives, that would imply the birth rate rose from 2004 to 2007 because of a lack of access to contraceptives.
Does anyone really believe the birth rate began to rise in 2004 because of a contraceptive shortage? That’s what Guttmacher’s claim would seem to imply.
But Guttmacher also blames the economy, saying people chose to prevent pregnancy from 2008 to 2011 because they could not afford children. If that’s true, why did the birth rate remain low during the 1990’s–one of the most prosperous periods in American history? Why did it rise during the last half of George W. Bush’s presidency–when the economy was already struggling?
Things just don’t seem as simple as Guttmacher makes them out to be.
#4 Guttmacher Ignores Attitudes Toward Abortion
Officials from the Guttmacher Institute mention new abortion laws and clinic closures, but they are ignoring altogether another reason abortion might be on the decline: Changing attitudes.
Over the past two decades, attitudes toward abortion have shifted dramatically. More than ever, Americans identify themselves as pro-life, and if you check out the most recent polling, you see the average American does not believe in “abortion on demand and without apology.”
A lot of factors impact our birth rates–average age, public health, and, sure, the availability of contraceptives–but let’s not forget Americans’ attitudes.
I wouldn’t say an increasingly pro-life attitude is the only reason abortion is on the decline, but I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it altogether.