Abortion rates in the United States have been steadily falling since 1981, but according to new research by the Guttmacher Institute, the U.S. abortion rate has come to a possible standstill, or even a reversal of the long-term decline. The 2008 data on abortion incidence in the United States (the most recent data available) show numbers that are nearly identical to the 2005 rate. In 2008, there were 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women, a slight increase from the 2005 rate, which stood at 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women. Accessibility to abortion has not increased but has remained essentially the same; the leveled-off abortion rate could be due to other factors, such as the recession, stagnation in the teenage pregnancy rate, and restricted access to and information about contraception.
With high rates of unemployment and a harsh economic climate, it is possible that the recession beginning in 2008 has made it more likely that more women are turning to abortion than in past years. Michael New, a professor of political science at the University of Alabama, points to the role of the faltering economy in the stalling of abortion rates, commenting, “Abortion numbers go down when the economy is good and go up when the economy is bad.” He added, “If the economy does better, you’ll see numbers trending down again.” A poor economy could mean that an increasing number of women find it more difficult to pay for the contraceptive services that are needed for the prevention of unintended pregnancy, and that fewer women are covered by insurance.
Additionally, the high rate of unemployment could be a factor; in the cases where employer-provided insurance did reimburse the cost of birth control, some women may have lost that coverage when they were laid off from their jobs. In this way, the economy certainly could have been a factor in the stalling of the falling abortion rate. “The recent recession was a factor in women beginning to delay starting a family because they can’t afford it,” comments Carol Brite, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois.
However, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that the decline in the abortion rate began to level off even before the economic recession, suggesting that other factors also are at play. Notably, there was no increased use of contraceptives between 2006 and 2008, according to a survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, the leveling off of the abortion rate also coincided with a rise in teenage pregnancies in the United States in 2007, after a 14-year decline.
In response, many sexual and reproductive health advocates argue that the stalled rate demonstrates the need for increased access to and education about contraception. “A stagnation in the falling abortion rate represents a stagnation in our advancement toward widespread access to comprehensive sexuality education and contraception,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “Advocates and government officials alike need to step up their efforts to protect family planning services and sexuality education so that more women are not faced with an unintended pregnancy.”
The Guttmacher Institute has taken a similar stance. As Sharon Camp, its president and CEO, notes, “our stalled progress [on the declining abortion rate] should be an urgent message to policymakers that we need to do more to increase access to contraceptive services to prevent unintended pregnancy.”
Rebecca Wind, “Long-Term Decline in Abortions Has Stalled; Medication Abortion Becoming More Common,” Guttmacher Institute, 11 January 2011, accessed 21 January 2011, <http://www.guttmacher.org/media/nr/2011/01/11/index.html>.
Lisa Paul, “Slight Increase in Abortion Rates May Reflect Economic Woes,” Medill Reports, 13 January 2011, accessed 21 January 2011, <http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176232&terms=abortion%20rate>.
Rob Stein, “Decline in U.S. Abortion Rate Stalls,” Washington Post, 11 January 2011, accessed 21 January 2011, <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/11/AR2011011107331.html>.
Wind, “Long-Term Decline in Abortions Has Stalled.”