Teasing out the facts in the latest abortion report

US rates have hit a 40-year low -- but not because of restrictive laws, says the Guttmacher Institute. Does that make sense?
Priscilla K. Coleman | Feb 4 2014 | comment  

According to the results of a new study just released by Guttmacher Institute researchers, Jones and Jerman, the US abortion rate has dropped to its lowest point since legalization in 1973. The study was published in the Guttmacher’s in-house journal, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

Many are asking: Is it true abortions are on the decline in the US? Why are they declining? Should we believe the Guttmacher researchers’ results and conclusions?

Based on the information provided in their report, the data gathered is reasonably trustworthy. The authors were able to secure 86 percent of their data directly from abortion providers (up from 82 percent in 2008) and they went to great lengths to create as accurate as possible estimates. However many of the conclusions drawn are quite inappropriate, as they are not consistent with the data reported and/or involve inferences that are likely politically motivated, as opposed to being data-based.

In 2008, there were approximately 1.21 million US abortions, and in 2011, the number plummeted to roughly 1.06 million. More precisely, in 2011, there were 153,860 fewer abortions performed in the US, just under the population of Dayton, Ohio or Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Nationally, the abortion rate declined by 13 percent, with particularly steep declines in mid-western states that enacted laws during the study period, regulating service provision and reporting (e.g., Kansas down 35 percent and South Dakota down 30 percent).

Kansas had abortion laws requiring pre-abortion counseling and use of ultrasound, parental consent for minors, limited access to chemical abortion, limited abortion coverage in private insurance plans, amended abortion reporting laws, including mandated reporting of abortions performed on minors, close regulation of providers, limited abortion beyond 20 weeks, and banned partial-birth abortion.

South Dakota required pre-abortion counseling, including warning women that abortion significantly increases their risk of depression and suicide, required use of ultrasound, and limited access to chemical abortion.

Only six states did not witness declines (Alaska, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Wyoming). However, in 5 out of 6 of these states the absolute number of abortions was very low. Only 2 of these states had passed regulations (Wyoming required ultrasound and Maryland placed limits on state Medicaid coverage of abortion).

Despite what looks like an obvious association between pro-woman laws that foster sounder abortion-related medical decisions and the pattern of declining rates, our friends at the Guttmacher Institute prefer to attribute their findings to unmeasured factors (supposed declines in unintended pregnancy rates and increased use of contraception).

They argue that the recent proliferation of abortion laws is likely unrelated to the reduced abortion rate, using examples of states that have not enacted regulations, yet evidenced declines.

However, this simplistic argument does not take into consideration the fact that the record number of regulations, which have often been quite contentious, have received an enormous amount of national media attention with psychological effects surely crossing state lines.

Moreover, it is quite likely that the increased efforts made by the majority of US states to effectively regulate and protect women from poor medical decisions, is a reflection of a culture that has grown to understand the complexities of abortion and the numerous adverse consequences it often brings to women, families, and society.

The authors assume that certain types of laws are unlikely to affect the numbers. For example, they state: “Many of the laws would not be expected to have a measurable impact on abortion incidence. For example, three of the four states with new counseling laws—Missouri, North Dakota, and Utah—simply added new information to existing counseling requirements.” 

Well, in Missouri for example, the abortion provider is required to discuss "indicators and contra-indicators, and risk factors including any physical, psychological, or situational factors for the proposed procedure and the use of medications, including but not limited to mifepristone, in light of her medical history and medical condition." The law further mandates a woman receive materials stating that "the life of each human being begins at conception. Abortion will terminate the life of a separate, unique, living human being."  

It is likely that this information could have an impact, particularly among women who were ambivalent in the first place.

You might ask yourself, why would a “pro-abortion rights think tank” (as the Washington Post recently described the Guttmacher Institute) be motivated to publish data indicating that abortions are on the decline?

Based on a careful reading of the article, I’m not sure what they wanted to achieve. Was it to convince the public that abortion restrictions do not impact practice or to make the claim that such restrictions were hindering women’s right to choose abortion? This conflict is evident in the following quote from the article: “Finally, although we have no evidence that new abortion restrictions affected abortion incidence or services at the national level during the study period, this does not mean that these laws are not problematic. Some of the new regulations undoubtedly made it more difficult and costly for facilities to continue to provide services and for women to access them.”

The Guttmacher Institute has long-standing ties with Planned Parenthood as they acknowledge on their website: “When Guttmacher was founded (as the Center for Family Planning Program Development) in 1968, it was initially housed within the corporate structure of Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA)…. In 1977, Guttmacher incorporated as an entirely independent nonprofit policy research institute with its own Board, but remained a special affiliate of PPFA. Over the years, the Institute has received financial support from PPFA, as it has from a wide range of other entities.”

Interestingly, the report was not published in a mainstream peer-reviewed journal, despite the strong method of data collection. Thankfully, most journals would never permit the leaps made by Jones and Jerman as they “explain” their findings.

The take-home message from this article is that abortion rates are declining and that there is a strong possibility that the enactment of pro-woman, pro-life laws are at least partly responsible.

Priscilla Coleman is Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Bowling Green State University in the US.  She is also Director of the World Expert Consortium for Abortion Research and Education (WECARE).

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