Reading the data on declining abortion rates

This essay first appeared on

Recently released figures from the Guttmacher Institute show a drop from 1.2 million abortions in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2011, and that’s something to cheer about.

The question is, who’s cheering, and why.

Anti-abortion forces are not even cheering very loudly. Instead, as reported in National Right to Life’s News Today, they are proclaiming that the new report “downplayed the role that public debate over the rights of unborn children have played in this trend.” Well, that role is, in itself, debatable. I would suggest that those on all sides of the issue might do well to put aside the fringes — “Abortion on demand and without apology!” as well as “The unborn must have rights!” — and focus instead on the good news: Fewer women are having abortions. Unintended pregnancy rates have dropped. Abortion has decreased to its lowest level since 1973 when Roe v Wade was decided.

As a woman who had a back-alley abortion in 1956, I hear that as good news on many counts. No one, I repeat, no one, has an abortion without anguish. The decision is always complex, difficult, unique and intensely personal. One woman may have been raped, another impregnated under equally horrendous circumstances. One woman might already have more children than she can adequately care for and know that continuing her pregnancy will threaten her own health and her children’s future. Another woman could have learned her pregnancy has severe fetal anomalies, leaving her heartbroken at the prospect of bringing a child into the world who will only suffer and quickly die. If she’s poor, her choices rapidly disappear. Like the young woman denied access and unable to end a tragic pregnancy in 2009 who told me tearfully, “we couldn’t raise the money.”

A decrease in stories like these is great good news.

But it will not happen by continuing to deny access to safe procedures or creating more and more layers of restrictions. It will not happen by rolling back access to the very things that can limit the unintended pregnancy rate in the first place, like sex education and birth control. Insisting that every woman in the U.S. must be compelled to carry every pregnancy to term will not prevent unintended pregnancies, and unintended pregnancies will always drive up abortion rates.

When I began work on my recently published book, Perilous Times: An inside look at abortion before – and after – Roe v Wade, I spoke first with women like me who had had no access to safe and legal abortion. Our stories are of frightening trips in strange cars, blindfolded and defenseless, to kitchen-table abortions performed by untrained criminals. But soon I began hearing equally distressing stories from young women today, like the distraught woman above who “couldn’t raise the money.” Or the pregnant 14-year-old who was rescued by Loretta Ross of SisterSong in Atlanta after the abused child — “she was still sucking her thumb,” Ross said — had been unable to terminate her pregnancy because of time limits in her home state.

Lower abortion rates will come from more widespread use of more effective contraception. And from educating women, and men, about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

How can effective, non-judgmental, accurate education happen? Not through the organizations that run “Crisis Pregnancy Centers” and spread misinformation, while telling women that abortion is “murder.” If education is to be effective, it can only happen in an arena of full truth, and be built on scientific fact.

Physicians for Reproductive Health is a good place to start. This professional organization keeps its focus on women’s health. Remember when trained doctors and healthy women were the heart of the debate rather than unscientific data and political rants? The National Abortion Federation, which has a strong educational arm, is another. And finally there is — gasp — Planned Parenthood. Targeted as the Essence of Evil by anti-abortion forces because some Planned Parenthood health centers offer safe and legal abortion, in reality Planned Parenthood is the logical place to begin advocating for… planned parenthood: safe, informed ways to avoid unintended pregnancies and promote healthy women and children. The organization is already providing extraordinary services. According to PPFA’s website, “every year, more than 700 Planned Parenthood health centers provide birth control to more than two million patients from all walks of life.”

The latest Guttmacher report could be a catalyst for change. But only if those on both sides of the highly polarized and overly emotional abortion issue will use it for the good of women. And I, an eternal optimist, am not holding my breath.


  1. “No one, I repeat, no one, has an abortion without anguish.” Sorry, I think that’s hokum. I had an abortion in the 70’s due to an unforseen pregnancy while using an IUD whose manufacturers had misrepresented its efficacy. My dr. was a fabulous lady and she handled the entire thing (after seeing the look on my face when she diagnosed a pregnant uterus) without even asking me what I wanted to do. An appointment was set up at the hospital within the week, the dr. greeted me reassuringly, a d + c was performed, and I went home and slept off the anesthetic. I never thought about it again, except with gratitude at how lucky I was to have such great care. I don’t understand why any attempt is made to brainwash young women into believing that they will suffer some mysterious ‘anguish’ if they have an abortion. FYI, it is not necessary for women to bear children, and we live in a critically overpopulated world. Logically, there is far more anguish and physical risk in going through with a pregnancy, and possibly giving up an infant for adoption – or trying to raise a child without adequate finances – than in having this simple procedure done by a qualified md. Women should be given every opportunity to control their own physical destiny, and should not be frightened off by the bogeyman of “anguish” if they have to take this route of last resort.

    1. Thank you, B, and I stand corrected. Far better I should have said “without serious thought,” and I will make that edit. I do know the primary reaction following an abortion, for the large majority of women, is relief — that was true in my case. I do want to combat the notion that any abortion is “casual,” or that great hordes of women “use abortion for birth control” as opponents like to suggest. But your point is right on and all of your points are excellent ones. I appreciate your taking time to leave these thoughts. (And straighten me out.)

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