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Declining Abortion Numbers Are an Unheralded Public Policy Success Story. So Where's the Media?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Steve Helber

Last year, the nation received good news. Two new reports both indicated that the U.S. abortion rate continues to decline. In September, the Guttmacher Institute released 2017 abortion data and in November, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released abortion data from 2016.  The trends were very similar. Both data sources found that the U.S. abortion rate has fallen by around 20 percent since 2000. Furthermore, both data sources indicate that the U.S. abortion rate has fallen by approximately 50 percent since 1980. Good news!


The decline in the U.S. abortion rate is more noteworthy then people realize. After the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision the number of abortions skyrocketed. In fact, between 1973 and 1980, the U.S. abortion rate increased by nearly 80 percent.  This concerned many in the pro-life movement.  Rising abortion rates meant that both more women were obtaining abortions and more people were involved in the decision to have an abortion. Such people might have strong psychological reasons to support legal abortion in the future. As such, if pro-life leaders in 1980 were told that the abortion rate would fall by 50 percent by the year 2020, they would have been very skeptical.

That said, aside from a small group of journalists and analysts with a strong interest in abortion trends, the falling abortion rate receives little attention. This is surprising.  Other major public policy success stories have received a great deal of attention from the mainstream media.  The significant decline in the crime rate in the 1990s received a considerable amount of coverage with special focus given to new policing techniques in New York City. Similarly, the long-term decline in the teen pregnancy rate has also received a great deal of attention as analysts robustly debate the role of contraception, sexual activity, social media, television shows depicting teen mothers, and a range of other factors.


However, declining abortion numbers receive much less coverage.  One would think that many would be eager to celebrate this public policy success story.  Of course, most Republican elected officials espouse pro-life views. However, up until relatively recently, even many prominent Democrats favored reducing the incidence of abortion. President Clinton famously said that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” Even President Obama on occasion expressed interest in reducing abortion rates.  Overall, a public policy achievement of this nature should clearly receive more attention.

So why do declining abortion rates receive little publicity? Part of it is the way that the data is released. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) often releases abortion data the day before Thanksgiving – a day when few people are paying attention to current events.  Furthermore, CDC data is published in a technical public health publication that provides relatively little commentary or analysis. Additionally, the Guttmacher Institute tries to aggressively spin their abortion numbers. Guttmacher supports both legal abortion and increased spending on contraceptive programs.  They focus their analysis on short-term declines in the abortion rate and take considerable pains to downplay the impact of pro-life service, legislative, and educational activities.


Additionally, part of the inattention is political.  Any honest analysis of the 50 percent decline in the U.S. abortion rate would confirm that pro-life efforts are playing a significant role in the decline.  Many journalists support legal abortion and simply do not want to lend credibility to the efforts of pro-lifers. Indeed, a large reason for the long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate is that a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term. In 1981, 54 percent of unintended pregnancies were aborted. That figure fell to 42 percent by 2011. This statistic nicely shows that pro-life educational, service, and legislative efforts have all enjoyed success.

As pro-lifers gather in Washington, D.C. for the March for Life, we should take heart. Even though we have not succeeded in overturning Roe v. Wade, declining abortion numbers demonstrate that we have been quietly effective in other ways.  Since the mid-1990s, there has been a durable increase in the percentage of people who identify as “pro-life.” Between 1988 and 2015, the number of nonprofit organizations offering life-affirming help to pregnant women has increased by 86 percent. There are over 1,200 state l pro-life laws on the books – over one third of which have been enacted since 2011. Overall, we should never be discouraged that our efforts often fail to get the recognition or attention they deserve. Instead, we should redouble our efforts which are effectively building a culture of life.


Michael J. New is a Visiting Assistant Professor at The Catholic University of America and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New

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