Tuesday 30 September 2008
by: Michelle Goldberg, The Guardian UK
News of abortion rates declining could mean stricter laws are preventing the procedure. (Photo: CNN )
The abortion rate in the US has fallen to a 30-year low, but the reasons for the decline are not cause for celebration.
The news that the abortion rate in the US has fallen to its lowest level since Roe v Wade seems, at first, unambiguously heartening. After all, despite what some on the right may think, no one, not even the most zealous pro-choice activist, likes abortion. Even if you don't think there's anything immoral about terminating an unwanted pregnancy, it is always painful for the woman involved, both physically and, in many cases, emotionally. So it seems like great news that, according to a new study by the Guttmacher Institute, America's premier sexual and reproductive health thinktank, abortion rates, declining since 1990, reached a three-decade low in 2004, the last year for which data is available.
Before we start celebrating, though, it's worth noting that while abortion has declined, accidental pregnancy has not. It would be fantastic if American abortion rates had gotten so low because, thanks to better access to family planning, fewer women were finding themselves pregnant when they didn't want to be. But according to a previous Guttmacher study, about 49% of pregnancies in the US are unintended, a number that's been pretty consistent since the mid-1990s. Certainly, not all of those pregnancies were regarded as calamities. For some women, they were probably happy surprises. But there is no reason to believe that unintentional fecundity is any more welcome now than it was in the past. Yet more women are carrying their unplanned pregnancies to term. Is that a good thing?
If it's really a result of women's choices, it's certainly not a bad thing. Perhaps American women are becoming more anti-abortion, and are acting on that conviction, which no one can argue with. Yet there's evidence that part of the reason abortion rates are falling is because, due to increased restrictions and a shrinking number of providers, women are finding it harder to terminate their pregnancies. "Based on the knowledge that we have, we think [the decline] is kind of a mixture of decreased access, at least for some women in some parts of the country, and, for some populations of women, better use of contraceptive methods," said Rachel Jones, a senior research associate at Guttmacher who served as the abortion study's project manager.
Wyoming, for example, measured one of the steepest declines in its abortion rate - a decrease of more than 73% since 1996. At the same time, it's become much harder to get an abortion in that state. Since 1996, there's been a 21% increase in the number of Wyoming women who live in counties without an abortion provider. The state once had eight doctors performing abortions. Now it has two.
For the anti-abortion movement, no doubt, this is good news. And it cuts against evidence from other countries showing that there is very little connection between abortion's legal availability and its incidence. Worldwide, some of the highest abortion rates are in South America and East Africa, both regions that also have some of the world's strictest abortion laws. (In 2004, America's abortion rate - the number of abortions per 1,000 women, was 19.7. Compare that to World Health Organisation figures which show that there are 29 unsafe abortions per 1,000 women in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a startling 39 per 1,000 women in East Africa). The Guttmacher study, then, offers some evidence that anti-abortion legislation can do what it sets out to do, which is to prevent women with unwanted pregnancies from ending them.
For those who care about reproductive rights, though, the news from Guttmacher is far more mixed. Recently, there's been lots of talk about abortion reduction as a bipartisan approach to an issue that perennially inflames American politics. This approach has much to recommend it, as long as it focuses the underlying problem, which is unwanted pregnancy. So far, the US record on that front is spotty. America has been pretty successful in tackling the teen pregnancy rate, which has gone down overall, but less successful in getting contraceptives to adult women who need them. We still have insurance plans that cover Viagra but refuse to pay for birth control, and far too many women who don't have any reproductive healthcare at all.
Anti-abortion campaigners sometimes say that women deserve better than abortion, and they're right. They deserve help in protecting themselves, as much as possible, from unwanted pregnancy. Until there's a healthcare system that does that, it's hard to see much progress.