The abortion rate has come down to an all-time low—the lowest rate since 1973, the first year for which we have accurate numbers. In fact, the abortion rate dropped 13% between 2008 and 2011. Pro-life groups are arguing that this drop is the result of new abortion restrictions, but in fact the vast majority of these new restrictions were enacted after the 2010 midterm election, and would have no effect on the 2008 to 2011 data. Further, the study itself found that new abortion restrictions and reductions in abortion providers (both of which were minimal during this period) did not cause the decline.
So what has caused the decline? Logically, there are several options.
Are More Women “Choosing Life”?
One is that more women with unintended and unwanted pregnancies are choosing parenthood. But in this case, we would expect to see an increase in the birth rate. Do we see that? No. In fact, we see the opposite.
The U.S. fertility rate fell to another record low in 2012, with 63.0 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s down slightly from the previous low of 63.2 in 2011.
It marked the fifth year in a row the U.S. birth rate has declined, and the lowest rate on record since the government started tracking the fertility rate in 1909. In 2007, the rate was 69.3.
It’s particularly interesting to note that the abortion rate fell during this period, even as the birth rate fell. In other words, the falling abortion rate wasn’t the result of more women choosing parenthood and the falling birth rate isn’t a result of more women having abortions. Instead, both are the result of a third external factor—fewer pregnancies.
So, why are women getting pregnant less often?
Are women having less sex?
Another option is that women are having less sex—not surprisingly, some pro-lifers are arguing that that is the case and are crediting it to the success of abstinence only education in high schools. It is indeed the case that the teen pregnancy rate is currently falling as a result of both increased contraception use and a decrease in sexual activity among young teens. But remember that teenage minors are only a very small percentage of those having abortions—6.4%. In comparison, 57% of women who obtain abortions are in their twenties. Further, 61% of women who obtain abortions already have at least one child. Could it be that twenty-somethings and women with children are having less sex? If we go with this explanation, we would also have to conclude that married women had less sex during the recent recession, because married women’s birth rates fell too. I’m interested in seeing more research on this, but am skeptical that it explains the decline.
Is Women’s Birth Control Use Changing?
I commonly find pro-life groups baffled at the idea that contraception could cause a decrease in the abortion rate today. It’s not like we haven’t already had contraception for decades, they say. It’s not like something has changed. Except, well, things have changed. One change is that the rate of birth control use overall has been increasing, slowly but steadily. But an often overlooked important recent change is the move toward long-term birth control methods like IUDs and implants.
According to the New York Times in early 2012:
The number of women in America now using an IUD has more than tripled since 2002. In the 12 months ending in August 2011, IUDs accounted for 10.4 percent of contraceptives issued by doctors, up from just 1.7 percent in the 12 months ending August 2002, according to data from SDI Health, a health care research firm.
IUDs were once recommended only for women who were done having children, for fear of infertility from infections associated with the devices. But the guidelines were revised after better research showed these concerns to be groundless with currently marketed IUDs if proper precautions are taken when they are inserted.
As a result, IUDs are increasingly popular among young, unmarried and childless women, many of whom sing its praises in online chat rooms like IUD Divas.
This shift is something I have personally both witnessed and been a part of. I have an IUD. As a twenty-something woman, I’ve watched as friend after friend has switched from the pill to IUDs or implants or talked about doing so.
I cannot tell you how often I have spoken with people who do not understand that there is an important difference between the pill and an IUD. IUDs are incredibly effective and eliminate room for error. Yes, pills are very effective, but pills have a lot of user error. Indeed, something as simple as taking antibiotics can cause user error. With an IUD or an implant, there is no user error. These methods also last for years, helping to cut down on the amount of attention and time a woman has to put into her birth control. I am not saying IUDs and implants are solely responsible for the decline in the abortion rate, but it seems very likely that they have played a key role—and we shouldn’t find this surprising.
Even as pro-lifers are working to legally ban abortion, their opponents are pursuing policies that are decreasing the number of abortions—and without putting women through the trauma of going through an unwanted pregnancy with no choices. Pro-lifers, meanwhile, are doing their best to scare women out of getting IUDs—or are opposing any contraception whatsoever. And you know what? This is really the essence of what I was trying to say in my post on how I lost faith in the pro-life movement.