U.S. abortion rate drops to lowest level since Roe v. Wade
Abortion rights supporters and opponents rally outside the Supreme Court on March 2, 2016, when oral arguments were heard in a Texas abortion case.
The abortion rate in the U.S. has dipped to its lowest level since the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision that legalized the procedure nationwide, a survey released Tuesday finds.
The abortion rate in 2014 was 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy group that backs abortion rights. In 1973, the year of the historic Roe v. Wade decision, the rate was 16.3.
The 2014 figure was also down 14% from the 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women reported in a 2011 Guttmacher survey. About 926,200 abortions were performed nationwide in 2014, the report found, compared with 1.06 million abortions in 2011.
The survey comes three days before Donald Trump, an avowed abortion opponent, is inaugurated the nation’s 45th president. The results also land 10 days before Kellyanne Conway, a top Trump adviser, speaks at the 44th annual March for Life on Jan. 27. Abortion rights advocates are concerned because Trump will be nominating a justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia, and some fear the 7-2 Roe v. Wade decision could be at risk.
Better birth control is a key to the declining number of abortions, says Megan Donovan, a senior policy manager at the Guttmacher Institute. "The primary driver behind the decline was most likely improved contraceptive use, which leads to fewer unintended pregnancies," she says. "This is good news because it suggests women are increasingly able to access the resources they need to plan their families and avoid unintended pregnancy."
For abortion opponents, the numbers indicate a different benchmark, says Randall O'Bannon, director of education and research for the National Right to Life Educational Trust Fund. "Though we've still quite a ways to go to restoring full legal and moral respect for the unborn, this is a critical milestone, getting below 1 million abortions for the first time since 1975."
Beyond contraception and laws limiting abortion access, O'Bannon says his group believes a societal shift may be in play. "One element that may not be getting its due is the increasing sense among Americans that abortion is a no real solution for mothers, for their babies, or for society in general."
During a presidential debate this fall, Trump, who has called himself “pro-life,” said that if Roe is overturned, states will have the right to weigh the legality of abortion as they did before the Supreme Court decision.
However, the question of whether Roe could really be reversed has been up for debate. Even with Scalia's replacement, the court could remain one or even two votes shy of a majority to overturn the 44-year-old precedent.
In June, the court delivered its most consequential ruling on abortion in years, striking down restrictions on Texas clinics and doctors that threatened to prevent thousands of women from obtaining abortions. The court ruled 5-3 that a Texas law imposed undue hardships on women without sufficient health benefits. The restrictions threatened to close all but nine clinics and could have left the state unable to handle an estimated 65,000 to 70,000 abortions a year.
Donovan acknowledges that state abortion restrictions may have played a role in the survey's findings. Such restrictions include parental notification laws, 24-hour waiting periods and bans on abortions after six or 12 weeks.
"Between 2011 and 2014, over 200 abortion restrictions were passed in the states, an unprecedented attack on abortion rights following the 2010 midterm elections," she says. She singles out what are known as TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion provider) laws — standards abortion rights advocates say are arbitrary and aimed at closing abortion clinics.
But she notes that 28 states and Washington, D.C., did not have new abortion restrictions in place "and together they account for 62% of the decline" in the findings. "This indicates that something else is driving the decline, and the most likely explanation is improved contraceptive use."
Both abortion rights supporters and abortion foes are girding for a new administration — and potential new battlegrounds.
"Our hope for President-elect Trump is that he will appoint pro-life judges, and that the Congress will pass and the courts will approve measures that offer greater protection to the unborn and will reduce these numbers even further," National Right to Life President Carol Tobias says.
Donovan says abortion rights groups are prepping for a reality in which abortion and contraception are harder to access. "Rolling back policies that allow women to manage their reproductive health will have profound consequences, especially for low-income women, women of color and young people," Donovan says.
She notes the institute's study found 75% of abortion patients were low-income individuals who can face obstacles beyond finances when seeking an abortion: leave from work, child care, travel arrangements. "For women who are already struggling to get by, accessing abortion services can be particularly challenging," she says.
Other highlights of the report released Tuesday:
• 19% of pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) in 2014 ended in abortion.
• More than half of all U.S. abortion patients in 2014 were in their 20s; 12% were adolescents.
• Whites accounted for 39% of abortion procedures in 2014; blacks 28%; Hispanics 25%; other races and ethnicities 9%.
• The number of clinics providing abortion services declined 6% — from 839 to 788 — from 2011 to 2014.
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