Abortion Rate Falls to 30-Year Low

Abortion rate chart i i

Based on a survey taken of abortion providers every four to five years, researchers estimate that the rate of abortions in 2005 was near an all-time low. hide caption

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Abortion rate chart

Based on a survey taken of abortion providers every four to five years, researchers estimate that the rate of abortions in 2005 was near an all-time low.

Next Tuesday marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

It's a day where those on opposite sides of the abortion debate air their differences.

But today there is news both sides are embracing: The number of abortions in the U.S. is continuing its downward trend.

The news is contained in a study from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health and rights think-tank that surveys every known abortion provider in the country every four or five years. This is the group's 14th survey.

According to the study released Thursday, the abortion rate in 2005 was lower than the rate in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade. The rate is calculated as the percentage of women of childbearing age having abortions.

"In 2005 we had an abortion rate of 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44," said Rachel Jones, a senior research associate with the group and the study's lead author. That's down "considerably" from a high point of 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women in 1980, she said.

There was also a drop in the actual number of abortions performed. In 2005, there were 1.2 million abortions in the U.S., down 8 percent from 1.3 million in 2000.

The number of abortion providers also continues to decline, according to the survey. But Jones said the drop in the number of providers can't be directly tied to the decrease in the number of abortions.

It may be that women with unintended pregnancies are finding it more difficult to obtain the procedure, she said, but it could also be that women are doing a better job of using contraception.

"Therefore, there [are] fewer unintended pregnancies and less demand for abortion services," Jones said.

In some cases, she said, there is a fairly direct link between the number of providers and the number of abortions. In Mississippi, for example, the number of abortion clinics fell by half.

"There's now only one abortion provider in the state of Mississippi," Jones said, "and we're pretty sure that the loss of that other abortion clinic has contributed to the decline in abortion rates in Mississippi."

The overall 2 percent decline in abortion providers in this survey, however, is much smaller than the double-digit decreases found in previous surveys. A major reason, Jones said, is the increase in providers offering medical as opposed to surgical abortions, in most cases via the abortion pill mifepristone, also known as RU-486.

"We estimate if it weren't for these providers who offer only early medical abortions ... the number of providers would have declined by 8 percent instead of by 2 percent," she said.

On the other hand, Jones said that so far the availability of the abortion pill hasn't really done what abortion-rights advocates had most hoped — made medical abortion available in places where surgical abortions aren't. That's because a preliminary analysis shows most of those new providers of medical abortion services are in areas where surgical abortion is also available.

Still, 13 percent of women now use an abortion pill to end their pregnancies. That number is rising fast, and it alarms members of the anti-abortion community.

"RU-486 is killing women," said Cathy Ruse, senior fellow for legal studies at the Family Research Council.

"Twelve women have died from RU-486, and there have been hundreds of reports of serious adverse health consequences," she said. "Serious life-threatening hemorrhaging, 400 reports of required surgery following RU-486 — it's a serious problem."

And while Ruse praised the continuing decline in abortion rates, she warned the public not to miss the bigger picture.

"We still have 1.2 million abortions in America every year, and that is a national tragedy," she said. "Our abortion rate is still higher than every other nation in the western world. We can do better than that."

Despite the disagreements over the abortion pill, however, it's worth keeping one thing in mind.

Next week, when sign-wielding abortion rights activists and anti-abortion groups are yelling at each other, they actually agree on one fundamental point: The best way to continue to reduce the number of abortions is to continue to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.

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