READING THE NUMBERS
BY MARGARET TALBOT
Last week’s report about the declining abortion rate in the United States was potentially good news for everyone, especially, one would think, for right-to-life groups. Most of them, though, weren’t cheering. A statement from Americans United for Life called the report “an abortion industry propaganda piece short on data and long on strained conclusions.” One problem was that the groups didn’t like the messenger. The report, which showed that between 2008 and 2011 the rate of abortions had fallen to its lowest level since 1973, came from the Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher produces scrupulous research on reproductive health; it also supports abortion rights. But the bigger problem was the message itself, because the report made a persuasive case that the right-to-life movement cannot take credit for the decline in abortions.
Since 2008, states have enacted more than a hundred laws related to abortion, most aimed at limiting access to the procedure. The researchers, however, concluded that the new laws, with few exceptions, had had little impact on the number of abortions. Instead, much of the decline is probably attributable to more effective contraception, some of it available through the federal funding-”Uncle Sugar,” in Mike Huckabee’s creepy coinage-that Republicans like to rail against. Right-to-lifers could be promoting contraception and touting its success in averting unwanted pregnancies, but that doesn’t seem to be news that they want to hear, let alone spread.
In fact, nobody can say for sure why the rate is falling. But the report’s authors, Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerman, point to some key indicators. For one thing, there was a notable drop in the rates in several states, such as California, New York, and New Jersey, that had not enacted new restrictions. Indeed, rates dropped in all regions of the country, although the new laws are concentrated primarily in the Midwest and the South. Moreover, most of the restrictive laws were passed in 2011, and the decline was already under way in 2008. Finally, and critically, the decrease in abortions has been accompanied by a decrease in the birth rate, suggesting not that fewer women are choosing to terminate pregnancies but that fewer women are getting pregnant in the first place.