A new report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms an ongoing trend: Despite legalized abortion, the abortion rate in the United States continues to fall. The report noted a decline of 26 percent between 2006 and 2015, bringing us to the lowest rate the government has on record, and the lowest rate since Roe v. Wade in 1973. Following a spike in 1981, the abortion rate has followed a consistent downward trend.
Additionally, the report notes that the abortion ratio—the number of abortions to every 1,000 live births—is also at an all-time low. In 2005, the abortion ratio was 233 abortions for every 1,000 live births, while the 2015 ratio was 188 abortions for every 1,000 live births, a reduction of 19 percent.
These findings contradict what anti-choice activists would have us believe. The consensus among pro-life folks is that the only way to reduce the abortion rate is to criminalize abortion. But in reality, that hypothesis simply doesn’t hold.
So, why is the abortion rate dropping so consistently?
Some from the anti-choice camp claim the declining rate has to do with increasingly limited access to abortion—39 percent of women of child-bearing age living in counties where no medical providers offer abortion services. Another theory offered is that millennials oppose abortion slightly more than previous generations.
But, according to Vox, many experts agree that the ongoing reduction in the rate of abortions has to do with the increased availability and affordability of birth control. This is what pro-choice folks have been screaming into the ether for years: Reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, reduce the abortion rate. And how do we reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies? Easily accessible, effective contraception. It’s just that simple.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), enacted by the Obama administration, mandated that employers provide health insurance that covered a variety of different methods of contraception. IUDs and implants were already booming in popularity, and they became even more popular once they became free. Long-acting reversible contraception like IUDs and implants are known to be some of the most effective ways to prevent unintended pregnancy, and by extension, abortion.
Vox reports that state-level experiments also reveal the effectiveness of birth control in reducing the abortion rate. For example, Colorado began offering birth control to low-income women, and that resulted in a 40% decline in teen pregnancy between 2009 and 2013. No other state saw such a drop during that time period.
All of this is great news, but, given the agenda of our current administration and in particular its intent to roll back the ACA—and the reproductive rights that came with it—all of this progress is now at risk. Under the Obama administration, religious houses of worship were already exempt from providing insurance that included contraception as part of its plan. The 2014 Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby expanded that accommodation to “closely held” private businesses as well. This accommodation allowed for employees to receive coverage for contraception, but they had to receive it direct from the insurance company and not from their employer.
Then, in 2017, the Trump administration introduced an interim rule that would allow even large, publicly-traded companies to refuse coverage based on religious grounds. A separate rule allowed for an exemption based purely on moral grounds, not even bringing religion into it. Fortunately, the interim rules have been challenged at various levels, blocking their enforcement.
However, in November 2018, final rules were introduced that are nearly identical to the interim rules. According to Vox, one rule permits “any non-government employer—including large, publicly traded businesses—to get an exemption on the basis of ‘sincerely held religious beliefs’ while another enables nonprofits and small businesses (but not publicly traded companies) to receive an exemption based on ‘non-religious moral convictions.'”
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) produced a fact sheet stating they will “provide conscience protections to Americans who have a religious or moral objection to health insurance that covers contraceptive methods.”
In other words, these companies will be free to snub their noses at women’s reproductive needs and leave massive segments of our population—in particular, those who are at a socioeconomic disadvantage—vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy, and by extension, abortion. So pro-life, right?
These final rules aren’t due to take effect until January 2019 and will likely be challenged by courts as the interim rules were, but that doesn’t mean women can rest easy and assume our rights will be safe. Under the Trump administration, the HHS continues to chip away at the progress we’ve made, defending the interim rules introduced in 2017 by questioning whether birth control actually works, suggesting that providing birth control will lead to risky sex, and even offering guidelines that propose “natural family planning” as a reliable way to avoid unwanted pregnancies. Guidelines for teens promote abstinence and largely ignore the topic of contraception.
It’s been shown time and time again that education and access to affordable (or free) contraception is the most reliable way to reduce the abortion rate. If we want to continue the downward trend we’re currently seeing, we need to push our legislators to ensure that contraception is available to every citizen of reproductive age with a uterus.
The stats are in, and they don’t lie: Access to birth control, not criminalization of abortion, is the best way to reduce the rate of abortion.