Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released its annual Abortion Surveillance Report for 2011, revealing that abortion incidence is at its lowest level since the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973.
According to the data, 730,322 abortions were reported in 2011, down 5% from the previous year and 13% since 2002. Of the 48 areas reporting for both 2010 and 2011 (the District of Columbia and New York City included), 41 reported a decline in the abortion rate (i.e., number of abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age). Maine experienced the greatest dip with its rate decreasing from one year to the next by almost a quarter, and its state rate holding at almost half the national rate of 13.9.
Because abortion reporting is not standardized or mandatory for all states, however, the numbers collected by the CDC tend to be sharply lower than they actually are. Earlier this year, the Guttmacher Institute (GI), former research arm of abortion giant Planned Parenthood, also published its 2011 report, tallying about 1.1 million abortions. The difference lies in the method of data collection: Guttmacher surveys facilities and providers directly, whereas the CDC relies on state health departments to which many providers may not report. A handful of states still collect no data at all.
In fact, New York, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and New Jersey have the five highest abortion rates, according to Guttmacher, all ranging from 27 to 34 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age; however, the CDC notes that Maryland did not report at all (and hasn’t since 2006), and neither did New Jersey’s private physicians and women’s centers. Likewise, California, also ranking high for its abortion rate, has not reported to the CDC since the late 1990’s.
One promising finding is that the abortion rates substantially declined in three major abortion locales from 2008 to 2011. Delaware’s dropped by 28%, New Jersey’s by 12%, and New York’s by 9%.
An interesting take on the cause of the abortion decline appeared in the Atlantic. In the article, David Frum makes a fair point by dismissing major arguments that the decline is due to improved access to and/or greater use of birth control or due to the passing of state abortion-limiting laws.
Dismissing birth control, he cites the fact that “at any given moment, nearly 40 percent of women are using no birth-control method at all” and that roughly half of pregnancies in America are unintended. His argument is stronger than he realizes. Even though there is some evidence that contraception use has been on the rise, the rate of unintended pregnancy has remained stable over time and by some criteria has increased overall since the mid-1990s.
Frum likewise crosses new abortion-limiting state laws off the list of explanations since most of the decline occurred much earlier than these laws were passed in 2010. Though a valid point – especially since many states did not enact new laws and yet experienced a decline – there is still an impressive body of research that shows these laws do reduce the abortion rate, particularly when focused on public funding restrictions, parental involvement, and informed consent. Furthermore, the Texas Policy Evaluation Project found that Texas’ HB 2 has resulted in a noteworthy 13 percent decline in the state abortion rate in under a year since it was passed in November 2013.
For the decline leading up to 2011 – if not increased contraception use or recent state laws, then what? Frum concludes that abortion numbers are falling because society has finally “made its peace with unwed parenthood as an alternative to abortion.” Correction: Not just society at large, he suggests, but specifically the pro-life community in what he characterizes as a “fascinating irony.” Others have already articulated well that there is no true irony here since the pro-life movement not only has always had its mission rooted in assisting women through crisis pregnancies, but also has always considered the decision for single motherhood as “vastly superior to abortion.”
On the whole, Frum’s focus on marriage itself is warranted. He calls attention to a notable rise in live births to unmarried women from 1940 to 2007. In a nutshell, this, he reasons, shows that unmarried women who didn’t intend their pregnancies are increasingly choosing life and carrying their babies to term. Enter his commentary on the growing social acceptability of single motherhood to explain the shift in personal decision-making.
As a matter of fact, the CDC numbers do tell of a significant change. Overall, of the 37 states that reported marital status in 2011, an overwhelming 85.5% of these abortions were among unmarried women; however, from 2002 to 2011, the abortion ratio for unmarried women dropped considerably by 25%, from 505 abortions per 1,000 live births to 381.
It’s worth noting that Frum also gives credit, albeit in passing, to the pro-life movement for changing attitudes on abortion. He writes, “[T]he pro-life movement really does seem to have changed American minds about the morality of abortion… [T]he proportion that thinks abortion is wrong has edged up over the past 15 years: Only 38 percent of Americans now describe abortion as “morally acceptable.” In fact, six of the 10 most recent Gallup polls show that a majority of respondents identify themselves as pro-life.
Regarding increases found in the data, there are two especially notable categories: late-term abortions and medical abortions. The CDC found that late-term abortions – abortions occurring at or after 21 weeks gestation – were a slightly higher percentage of all abortions than in 2010. Though 1.4% of all abortions may seem small, considering Guttmacher’s 1,058,500 reported abortions in 2011, this percentage amounts to 14,819 late-term abortions.
The CDC also estimates a 3% increase in 2011 in medical or chemical abortions – abortions induced by a drug regimen, typically of mifepristone followed by misoprostol. From 2002 to 2010, the increase is very pronounced with 200% growth. (This leap can be explained by the FDA’s approval of the use of mifepristone for abortions in late 2000 and the first full year of its being reported in 2001.) For a more relevant picture, Guttmacher reports a 20% increase in the three years prior to its latest data for 2011.
These three trends are promising for the United States: that abortion is no longer as commonly regarded as the “solution” to unintended pregnancies, that abortion has been declining overall, and that more Americans are considering themselves pro-life. That America still has one of the highest abortion rates in the Western world and that it is currently one of only seven countries worldwide to allow elective abortion past five months, however, offers a challenging perspective. There remain good opportunities for the pro-life movement to continue influencing culture, which can in turn be reflected in life-protecting decisions and positive legislation.
Genevieve Plaster is Research Assistant for Charlotte Lozier Institute.