Days before the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Guttmacher Institute has released a national study of abortion. Its findings are something to be celebrated by pro-abortion-rights and antiabortion folks alike: The U.S. abortion rate is the lowest it has been in more than three decades. In 2005, the most recent year included in the study, 1.2 million abortions were performed; that’s an 8 percent drop from 2000. Abortion rates are also falling at a faster speed, say researchers.
Rachel Jones, the study’s lead author, says the findings might suggest that efforts to prevent unintended pregnancies are succeeding. A more cynical interpretation would be that a documented decline in the number of abortion providers has made it more difficult for women to obtain abortions — a shocking 87 percent of U.S. counties didn’t have an abortion provider. But Jones told NPR that though there is such a direct link in some regions, it doesn’t account for the overall decrease in abortions. In fact, the decline in abortion providers is significantly smaller than in previous years.
Interestingly, nonsurgical abortion rates have increased as drugs like RU-486 become increasingly available; 57 percent of abortion providers now offer mifepristone, compared with 33 percent in 2001. “As knowledge about and comfort with mifepristone has increased, it likely has been introduced into settings where surgical abortions were previously not provided, e.g. family planning clinics and the practices of family doctors,” says the report. There has also been an increase in clinics that only provide RU-486, which could account for some of the decline in surgical abortion sites.
The report also found that abortions are being performed earlier and earlier in pregnancy. Three in 10 abortions were performed within the first six weeks of pregnancy and six in 10 were performed within the first eight weeks. “For a long time, nearly 90 percent of abortions in the U.S. have taken place in the first trimester, but in recent years, women having an abortion have been able to do so earlier and earlier in the first trimester,” says Jones.
What’s the take-away from all this? Guttmacher Institute president and CEO Sharon L. Camp puts it simply: “Our policymakers at the state and federal levels need to understand that behind virtually every abortion is an unintended pregnancy.” In other words, reduce unintended pregnancies and you reduce abortion rates.