Liberal alarm in the U.S. over the future of Roe v. Wade may have never been higher, thanks to the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion this week, but the outcry comes as the nation’s abortion rate since the 1973 case was decided has never been lower.
After peaking in 1980 at 29.3 procedures per 1,000 women, the U.S. abortion rate has steadily declined, falling in 2019 to a historic low of 11.4, below the 13.5 per 1,000 women in 1973, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a November report.
From 2010 through 2019, the number of reported abortions fell by 18% from 762,755 to 629,898, while the population increased by about 20 million. The abortion rate decreased by 21% among women ages 15 to 44.
“You’re more likely to know a married gay couple than to know someone who has had an abortion,” said conservative radio host Erick Erickson in a Tuesday post.
The decades-long decline belied some of the messaging on both ends of the political spectrum, including repeated warnings by pro-choice advocates that a rollback of Roe v. Wade would trigger a “humanitarian crisis” and conservative fears that Roe’s recognition of a constitutional right to an abortion would send demand for the procedure on an ever upward trajectory.
“The gutting of Roe v. Wade will result in a severe public health and human rights crisis with grave repercussions for the health, well-being and rights of women, girls and pregnant people, including the criminalization of pregnant people seeking abortions and the increased rates of pregnancy-related deaths,” said Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in a Tuesday statement.
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The CDC report uses figures from the 47 states and reporting areas, which include New York City. California, Maryland and New Hampshire did not report data from 2010-19, meaning that the actual total is undoubtedly higher.
Ryan Bomberger, co-founder of the pro-life Radiance Foundation, said that “low is a really relative term, because you’re still talking about over 800,000 innocent human beings being killed.”
Even with the “dramatic declines” in procedure rates, the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute said in a 2017 study that abortion remains a “common experience,” concluding that 23.7% of American women would have an abortion by the age of 45.
“Despite recent declines in abortion, it is still a common procedure, and nearly one in four U.S. women will have an abortion in her lifetime,” said Guttmacher researcher Rachel Jones, lead author of the analysis.
The theories for the fall-off range from better birth control methods and sharply falling teen pregnancy rates since the 1950s to the expansion of pro-life pregnancy centers for help expectant mothers. Interestingly, Guttmacher found in 2017 that state laws limiting access to abortion were not the primary reason for the decline.
“Abortion restrictions were not the main driver of the decline in the U.S. abortion rate between 2011 and 2017,” said the study. “Rather, the decline in abortions appears to be related to declines in births and pregnancies overall.”
Another trend: the greater availability of medical abortions, or abortion pills. In February, Guttmacher said that the pills for the first time were used to terminate more than half, or 54%, of unwanted pregnancies, fueled in part by social restrictions brought on by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
The two-drug combination has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for up to 10 weeks gestation.
Teen abortions tumble
Those who do undergo abortions are more likely to be unmarried and in their 20s as the average age trends upward.
The 2019 CDC report found that 56.4% of abortions were for women in their 20s, with those aged 20 to 24 undergoing most of those procedures, or 34%. More than 85% of those obtaining abortions were unmarried.
Meanwhile, the teen abortion rate has dropped sharply. In 2014, teens aged 15 to 19 accounted for 12% of all procedures.
“The abortion rate among adolescents declined 46% between 2008 and 2014, the steepest decline of any demographic group over this period,” said the Guttmacher report.
Women who undergo abortions are also more likely to be Black, not just as a percentage of the population but in absolute numbers.
In 2019, Black women received 132,878 abortions, or 38.4%, of the total. That was more than non-Hispanic white women, who came in second at 33.4%, according to CDC figures for the District of Columbia and 29 states that report by race and ethnicity.
The large percentage of Black women undergoing procedures has long rankled the pro-life movement, which has accused leading abortion providers like Planned Parenthood of targeting Black and minority communities. Planned Parenthood argues that it provides health care to underserved areas.
Hispanic women made up 21% of abortion recipients, slightly above their 18.7% of the population, while “other” made up 7.2%. Women of all races have seen their abortion rates fall.
“Between 2008 and 2014, women of color experienced the steepest abortion rate declines: Rates fell 32%–39% among Hispanic and black women and those who identified with a race other than Black or white, compared with a 14% decline among white women,” said the Guttmacher study.
The vast majority of abortions, or 92.7%, occur in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, according to CDC data from 43 states or reporting areas. The 2018 Mississippi law that spurred the Supreme Court challenge bans most abortions after 15 weeks. Many Western countries with more permissive abortion laws set a limit of 12 weeks after conception.
Only 2.9% of abortions were performed between the 13th to the 15th week of the pregnancy, while 1% came at 21 weeks or later.
Most women who receive abortions are also poor. Those with incomes below 100% of the federal poverty line had the highest abortion rate among all income groups at 36.6% per 1,000 women, said Guttmacher.
“Abortion has become increasingly concentrated among poor women, who accounted for 49% of patients in 2014,” said the Guttmacher study.
Polls show that most Americans believe abortion should be legal, but pro-life advocates argue that opinion has trended in their direction, citing surveys showing that most people also favor some restrictions.
In 1995, 56% of Americans identified themselves as pro-choice versus 33% who considered themselves pro-life, but in the last few years, the two sides have been virtually tied, according to the Gallup poll.
“Opinion has shifted, despite the fact that the majority of mainstream media has basically been doing radical abortion advocacy,” said Mr. Bomberger. “It’s hard to imagine that we’re actually breaking through, but public opinion has changed.”