Wetter: Behind the falling number of abortions

A man holds a sign during an anti-abortion

A man holds a sign during an anti-abortion rally at the Texas Capitol in Austin, Texas. (July 8, 2013) (Credit: AP)

No matter which side of the abortion divide you're on, there's broad agreement that declining abortion rates in recent years are a good thing. But there's disagreement over what's led to the drop, and how it affects women's reproductive rights.

The Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights, published a study last month showing the number of abortions in the United States fell 13 percent in recent years, down from 1.21 million in 2008 to 1.06 million in 2011. That's the lowest number of abortions per capita since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Anti-abortion advocates are quick to attribute the drop to heightened awareness of the unborn and rejection of the idea that abortion is the answer to unexpected pregnancies.


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But the evidence is otherwise. During this period, the study noted, there were fewer pregnancies. A drop in the national birthrate coincided with improved contraceptive use, including more reliance on long-term reversible methods such as intrauterine devices. That suggests contraception and sex education drove abortion rates down.

The study period ended before efforts in Washington and statehouses went into high gear to defund, eliminate and stigmatize reproductive health services and education. Since 2011, state-level abortion restrictions have exploded -- 205 in the past three years compared with 189 over the previous 10, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid eligibility for low-income people, and included access to family planning and reproductive health services, but so far 25 states have blocked the expansion.

With the U.S. Supreme Court poised to rule on the ACA's birth-control mandate, 2014 could be a decisive year in the escalating battle over women's health and rights.

Most recently, the House of Representatives voted in January to pass new anti-abortion legislation that would make permanent a ban on federal spending on abortion, prevent health insurance plans on the new state exchanges from covering abortion, and impose tax penalties on small businesses if they purchase health plans that cover abortions. It also would bar the District of Columbia from using its own money to subsidize abortion care for low-income women. Since the legislation has zero chance of passing the Senate, it's meant as a political message.

So was former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's outrageous statement earlier this year that Democrats were insulting women by "making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control, because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government."

All this is having a deleterious effect on women's health and rights, worse in some places than others. The Population Institute's annual report card on reproductive health and rights studies indicators like teenage pregnancy and access to family planning and sex education. It finds a growing disparity among states. In its new report card for 2013, just 17 states got a B- or higher, 13 states failed dismally, and the country overall got a discouraging C-.

That leaves us at a critical, and risky, juncture. A woman's access to reproductive health services should not depend on where she lives. Yet amid the recent surge in anti-abortion policy, increasingly, it does. If we really want to reduce the need for abortion, the evidence indicates we ought to make sure women have access to affordable contraception, and that kids are getting comprehensive sex education. But anti-abortion advocates are pushing in the opposite direction.

Jennie Wetter is director of public policy at the Population Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes universal access to family planning information.

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