A new study published this week in a prestigious medical journal helps debunks abortion opponents’ claim that women who become pregnant are becoming less likely to choose abortion.
As the national abortion rate declines, members of the anti-abortion community have argued it’s because more women are reconsidering the wisdom of ending a pregnancy. They say that laws designed to delay women’s access to abortion — such as requirements that women view an ultrasound before continuing with the procedure — are successfully changing the culture and helping convince women to choose life.
“This is a post-sonogram generation,” Charmaine Yoest, the president of Americans United for Life, a conservative group that helps write state-level abortion restrictions, told the Washington Post in 2014 in response to a study showing the national abortion rate had dropped. “There is increased awareness throughout our culture of the moral weight of the unborn baby. And that’s a good thing.”
But the evidence says otherwise. The abortion rate is declining because fewer women are accidentally getting pregnant, according to a new study from reproductive health researchers who tracked a sharp drop in unintended pregnancies in recent years.
The Guttmacher Institute, an organization that closely tracks the country’s pregnancy and abortion rates, found a striking 18 percent decline in unplanned pregnancies between 2008 and 2011. At the same time, they observed the rate of contraceptive use increasing. They also found evidence that more women are choosing the best forms of birth control. Use of the most effective contraception methods, like the IUD, more than tripled between 2007 and 2012.
“These findings provide significant new clarity for the U.S. abortion debate,” said Joerg Dreweke, a researcher at the organization who wrote a policy analysis accompanying the new study. “We now know that abortion declined primarily because of fewer unintended pregnancies, and not because fewer women decided to end an unwanted pregnancy.”
Tellingly, the proportion of unintended pregnancies that end in abortion has remained relatively constant — suggesting that, when faced with an unexpected decision about whether to become a parent, U.S. women are not shifting toward choosing parenthood over abortion.
Guttmacher’s data aligns with other research that casts doubt on abortion opponents’ claim that additional regulations in this area are influencing women’s decisionmaking. For instance, studies have found that viewing a sonogram doesn’t actually change women’s minds about having an abortion.
The United States has one of the highest rates of unplanned pregnancy in the developed world, though there’s been some recent evidence that these rates are starting to drop. In addition to Guttmacher’s latest report, previous studies have confirmed that unplanned pregnancies among U.S. teenagers are falling to historic lows.
Despite the declines in unintended pregnancy rates among the population as a whole, these rates do remain disproportionately high among women of color. Previous research has confirmed that unplanned pregnancies are highly concentrated among vulnerable women who don’t have adequate access to family planning services.
In a commentary published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards argues that politicized attacks on women’s health care may end up putting contraception out of reach for some of these women.
“We have seen an unprecedented number of federal and state attacks on women’s health in the past year, including nine congressional votes to cease reimbursing Planned Parenthood for care provided to patients who depend on public health program,” Richards writes. “There is still much to do to ensure that all women have equal access to the full scope of contraceptive methods, and political barriers pose an alarming obstacle.”
Political barriers may influence the landscape moving forward, too. Guttmacher’s data about unintended pregnancies doesn’t go beyond 2011 — a year when many states started tightening their restrictions on abortion, leading a record-breaking number of clinics to close their doors. Now that it’s getting harder to get an abortion, there may be an additional factor to the declining rates of pregnancy terminations: women who wanted to have an abortion, but couldn’t.