Abortion Rates Down, Restrictions Up
By Christine Vestal, Staff Writer
Thirty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing women the right to end a pregnancy, the number of abortions is at an all-time low, while enactment of state curbs on the procedure is on the rise.
A new study shows the rate of abortions is the lowest since 1974, the year after the high court's Jan. 22, 1973, decision striking down state laws that made the procedure illegal. In addition, the overall number of abortions has plunged 25 percent since 1990, when the number of legal U.S. abortions peaked at 1.6 million, according to a survey released yesterday by abortion-rights researchers, the Guttmacher Institute.
Although the study's authors do not directly correlate state laws with the drop in rates, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate consider state restrictions one of the underlying reasons for the decline.
"State policy obviously plays a role in the number of abortions," said Guttmacher policy analyst Elizabeth Nash, pointing to steeper declines in abortion rates in the South and Midwest where more laws restrict the procedure. "Access to contraception also affects the overall rate by lowering the number of unintended pregnancies," she said.
Abortion opponents, who also use the study for advocacy, consider state restrictions to be an important factor, but not the only factor.
Randall K. O'Bannon of the National Right to Life Committee said two types of state laws - so-called parental involvement and informed-consent statutes - have likely played a big role in reducing the number of abortions.
Twenty-eight states require a parent to be involved in a minor girl's decision to have the procedure, contributing to a drop in the number of teen abortions, he said. And 23 states require doctors to tell women about alternatives to abortion. "A lot of women leap at the chance to find life-affirming alternatives," he said.
O'Bannon also argued that increased use of sonograms in doctors' offices during pregnancy has "dispelled the myth that a fetus is just a clump of cells." In addition, he said political debates since 2000 over the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Act, enacted in 2003, have included stark depictions of the procedure, giving many a "deeper understanding of what is really going on during abortion."
This year, advocates on both sides of the debate expect a bumper crop of new state laws limiting the procedure. The Supreme Court's April 2007 decision in Gonzalez v. Carhart, which upheld the constitutionality of the 2003 law, also gave states a green light to enact other types of restrictions as a means of protecting a woman's health.
Already, state lawmakers are proposing partial-birth abortion bans, stricter abortion clinic regulations, greater parental involvement and more pre-abortion counseling.
In 2007, 29 abortion restrictions were enacted in 14 states, capping a rapid rise in the number of new laws since 2000. Between 1985 and 1999, states passed an average of 11 new abortion restrictions each year. Since 2000, the rate has risen to 16 per year, according to Guttmacher.
In 1973, after the high court made abortion legal in all 50 states, the number and rate of abortions rose steadily until the early 1980s and then remained level. Starting in the early 1990s, the rate began to fall and has steadily dropped ever since, according to the study.
Good news in the study for women's health advocates is that a greater percentage of abortions were performed early in pregnancy when they are less likely to result in complications. This is due in part to a steady rise in the use of non-surgical, medication abortion since it was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2000.
More than six in 10 abortions occur within the first eight weeks of pregnancy and almost three in 10 occur at six weeks and earlier, said Rachel Jones, lead researcher on the study. "Medication abortion (also known as the morning after pill or RU486) clearly reinforces this very positive trend," she said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also collects data on the incidence of abortion, but because it relies on states to collect the information from abortion facilities - and not all states have reporting requirement - the data is incomplete. The CDC's most recent report covers 2004 and shows a similar decline in abortions.
California, Maryland, New Hampshire and New Jersey do not require clinics to report abortion statistics. The remaining 46 states require reporting, but 29 of them do not call for data on medication abortion.