The Abortion Rate Is Dropping, But The Fight Over It Is Picking Up Steam


Even though the abortion rate has reached its lowest level since the procedure was first legalized in 1973, the highly politicized debate over how to keep abortions rare is showing no signs of stopping, according to a new policy review from the Guttmacher Institute.

Between 2008 and 2011, the abortion rate declined by about 13 percent. If the goal is to reduce the need for abortions, the United States is now closer to that reality than at any other point over the past four decades. Nonetheless, that has hardly led to a truce in the political fight over reproductive rights.

“The philosophical divide over what constitutes effective and acceptable ways to further reduce the incidence of abortion in the United States has never been more stark. The rival policy approaches — one centered almost entirely on restricting women’s choices, and the other on supporting and expanding them — have now become mutually exclusive,” policy analyst Joerg Dreweke writes.

On one hand, abortion opponents are seeking to put an end to abortion by eliminating women’s access to the legal procedure with a mounting number of state-level restrictions. On the other hand, reproductive rights proponents are hoping to reduce women’s need for abortion in the first place by increasing their affordable birth control options, while maintaining access to legal abortion services for those who still require that option.

Neither side favors the other’s approach. Abortion rights supporters are concerned that restrictions on abortion prevent some of the most economically disadvantaged women from being able to receive the services they need. Abortion opponents, meanwhile, continue to fight against against efforts to expand access to contraception — and increasingly claim that some forms of birth control should actually be considered to be abortion.

The Guttmacher Institute’s research found that the recent sharp decline in the number of abortions is largely attributable to increased contraceptive use, since it corresponded with a drop in the overall birth rate. According to one faith-based lobbying group that crunched the data, the abortion rate has actually seen the fastest drop under Democratic-led administrations, perhaps partly because GOP lawmakers have resisted funding family planning programs. Nonetheless, after news broke that the abortion rate dropped to a historic low, both sides claimed victory.

In Guttmacher’s new policy report, Dreweke is clear about the distinction between the two starkly different approaches to lowering the national abortion rate.

“Abortion opponents may try to cloak their policies in pro-woman rhetoric, but the simple fact remains that these laws are intended to push reproductive decision making in one direction: toward pregnancy and childbearing,” he notes. “Viewed this way, the question is not whether coercive approaches ‘work’ in reducing abortion incidence. Rather, these coercive approaches are unacceptable in principle.”