Analysis Abortion

Study: Abortion Rates Are in Decline, but There’s No Single Reason Why

Steph Herold

Until we have more insight about the reasons for the 25 percent decrease in the national abortion rate, the abortion rate is just that: a number.

On Thursday afternoon, the Guttmacher Institute published updated statistics about the incidence of abortion among different demographic groups in the United States, noting that if the 2014 rates continue, about one in four U.S. women will have had an abortion by age 45. This is a significant change from the 2008 statistic of one in three.

Abortion rates declined among every demographic group, though the decrease varied. For the first time in 20 years, abortion rates declined among women whose family income was below the poverty level, although the report also shows that abortion has become increasingly concentrated among poor women, who accounted for almost half of abortion patients in 2014.

Young women between the ages of 20 and 29 still comprise the largest proportion of abortion patients—making up two-thirds of the total. Similarly, women of color still make up the majority of abortion patients at 62 percent.

Because of the quantitative nature of the data, it’s difficult to point to the exact reasons for the decline. The study’s researchers speculate that marked improvements in contraceptive use, particularly long-acting reversible contraception, are likely a key component of the decline, in addition to the rise of state-based abortion restrictions, which may have kept people from accessing care.

Yet until we have more insight about the reasons for the 25 percent decrease in the national abortion rate, the abortion rate is just that: a number. We know more about what it doesn’t tell us than what it does. We know that there is no magical abortion rate that will solve the political and cultural conflict over abortion in the United States. We also know that a lower abortion rate doesn’t mean that more people are able to access the medical care they need, whether that’s prenatal care, family planning services, or abortion care.

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Furthermore, the fact that abortion remains concentrated among poor people and people of color points to racist, classist disparities in health-care access that are long-standing hallmarks of U.S. medical practice. Systemic discrimination rooted in racial bias and disparities in access to high-quality care lead to poorer health outcomes, a complex problem that cannot be fully understood by a number alone. Putting the declining abortion rate in context means understanding the complex system in which people access reproductive health care, an experience that often lives at the intersection of poverty, race, class, and gender.

And contrary to what anti-abortion advocates might hope, this historically low abortion rate also does not mean that more people are choosing to carry their pregnancies to term instead of having abortions. The abortion rate in the United States has been declining for the last 25 years. As of data from 2011, unintended pregnancies have declined, and as of this past summer, the birth rate in the United States is at an all-time low.

Even states that have policies supporting access to abortion experienced a decline in their abortion rate. As the new Guttmacher study points out, this decline might indicate a positive development if it means that people are able to access contraception and therefore plan their pregnancies. Yet it could also be a negative development, in that even in states without common restrictions on abortion, people are not able to acquire the health care they need. This study only collected data on patients who had appointments at abortion clinics, so we also don’t know if and how people managing their own abortions outside the health-care system play into the overall abortion rate.

One in four may be a lower number than one in three, but that still makes abortion just as common an experience as miscarriage. Abortion is normal—and for many people, it’s not a big deal, and they don’t experience it alone. Abortion is safer than childbirth, and is care people have sought out by any means possible since civilization began. Advocates and researchers must work to understand the complexity behind the declining abortion rate, and at the same time, continue the work to ensure that everyone who needs an abortion is able to get one.

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