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Pro-life leaders say drop in abortion rate worth celebrating, but grave concerns remain
A recent Guttmacher Institute report indicates that the national abortion rate is at its lowest point since the procedure became legal nationwide in 1973.
“That’s definitely a reason to celebrate,” said Tessa Longbons, a research associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research and educational arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, a national pro-life organization.
Longbons told Our Sunday Visitor that the abortion rate in the United States fell by more than 50 percent between 1980 and 2017.
“Much of that is the result of the pro-life moment, both in passing these laws that protect women and babies, and just being a resource for women and teaching hearts and minds about abortion,” Longbons said.
But while Longbons and other pro-life leaders across the country are pleased that fewer women are having abortions, they take issue with several claims made by the Guttmacher Institute, which has historical ties to Planned Parenthood and supports legal abortion.
“I think there are a lot of different reasons for the decline in abortions, but Guttmacher is afraid or unwilling to list all of them,” Carol Tobias, the president of National Right to Life, told OSV.
In its report, released in mid-September, the Guttmacher Institute attributes the abortion decline in part to wider access and growing use of long-term contraceptives such as intrauterine devices, which are covered under the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
The Guttmacher report further argues that state-level laws, which in recent years have placed restrictions on abortion, have had little impact on the abortion rate. The report says abortions actually rose in four states — North Carolina, Mississippi, Wyoming and Georgia — that passed new restrictions between 2011 and 2017.
The report also attributes the abortion decline to increases in the number of individuals relying on “self-managed abortions outside of a clinical setting,” a claim that in itself is raising concerns about the growing access of abortion-inducing drugs and what that could mean for the national abortion landscape in the future.
“This is something that we’re going to have to pay attention to and track even more closely just because this is putting babies at risk, and women at risk as well,” Longbons said. “These abortions are more dangerous, and they’re happening without a doctor providing an ultrasound and an examination, and a checkup. Women could be harmed.”
The Guttmacher Institute compiles its abortion data by surveying hospitals, abortion clinics, state health departments and other sources. The institute said it obtained data from 59% of 2,277 facilities that it identified as abortion providers in 2016 and 2017.
The institute estimated there were 862,320 abortions conducted in clinical settings in 2017, which represented a 7% decline from 2014, when 926,000 abortions were tallied. The decline continued a long-term trend.
In 2017, the U.S. abortion rate dropped to 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44, the lowest rate recorded since the U.S. Supreme Court declared abortion to be a constitutional right in 1973.
Abortion rates also fell in most states and in all four regions of the country. Guttmacher said abortions declined in Republican-controlled states that seek to enact new restrictions and in Democratic-run states where legal abortion is protected.
Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel for Americans United for Life, a national pro-life public-interest law and policy organization, told OSV that he had a “mixed reaction” to the Guttmacher report.
“It’s wonderful that abortions are dropping, but this is a flawed messenger,” said Forsythe, who argued that the Guttmacher report was intended not so much to highlight the decline in abortion, but to argue against state-level pro-life laws.
|Religious affiliation and abortion|
According to the Guttmacher Institute’s 2014 Abortion Patient Survey, the majority of abortion patients indicated religious affiliation:
“That’s their agenda, besides an aggressive unlimited abortion agenda,” Forsythe said. “There is no reliable data that shows contraception has led to a drop in abortions.”
That claim is backed by Michael New, who teaches political science and social research at The Catholic University of America. New said the decline in abortions has coincided with a long-term increase in the percentage of unintended pregnancies that have been carried to term since the early 1980s.
“The good thing is that the abortion numbers are falling,” New told OSV. “We’ve seen a pretty steady decline in the abortion rate since 1980, and it’s been falling pretty consistently ever since.”
New said that long-term steady decline is further backed by a body of academic research that shows that a body of pro-life laws, ranging from informed consent to limiting public funding of abortions, has contributed to lowering abortion rates.
“Pro-lifers have made good progress in changing laws and minds,” said New, who described Guttmacher Institute’s analysis as “very superficial.”
Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told OSV that Planned Parenthood would not push back against state-level pro-life laws unless they were effective at discouraging people from having abortions.
“They know the laws have a dramatic effect on abortion rates in America,” Hawkins said.
Longbons, who released a report earlier this year analyzing trends in abortion rates across the United States, told OSV that a 2013 state law in Texas that imposed new safety requirements for abortion clinics, causing many to shut down, led to a sudden drop in that state’s abortion rate.
“The abortion industry complained and said the requirements were driving down the abortion rates, so even they agreed with us that these pro-life policies are effective,” Longbons said.
An eye-catching segment in the Guttmacher Institute’s report is that which pertains to “self-managed abortions,” which the report describes as a possible factor for driving down the national abortion rate.
The report is somewhat vague in describing self-managed abortions, but it notes that misoprostol, an abortion-inducing drug, is available in other countries and that it has been brought to the United States, where researchers have documented its use for self-managed abortions.
In addition, drugs similar to those used in the U.S. medication abortion regimen — a combination of mifepristone and misoprostol — have become available on the internet. Websites have also appeared that provide information about how to self-manage abortion using drugs obtained outside of a clinical setting.
In the United States, those drugs cannot be obtained outside a clinical setting, but Aid Access, an international organization that provides abortion pills through the mail, has reported filling thousands of prescriptions in the country. A European doctor affiliated with Aid Access has sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the right to distribute abortion pills to residents in the United States.
“If they’re able to get the FDA to change those rules, you could expect this to mushroom, and it would be difficult to see exactly how many of these would be done,” Randall K. O’Bannon, the director of education and research at National Right to Life, told OSV.
For now, at least, the rate of self-managed abortions seems to be relatively low. A 2017 national survey of U.S. adult women found that only 1.4 percent reported ever having attempted to end a pregnancy on their own. Even Guttmacher concedes in its report that is unlikely that “even a substantial increase” in self-managed abortions can account for the majority of the decline in the national abortion rate.
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.