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ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

Next Tuesday marks the 35th anniversary of Row vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. The debate over abortion remains a contentious one, but some things have changed over time. The number of abortions in the U.S. continues to decrease.

NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER: Every four or five years, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health and rights think-tank, surveys every known abortion provider in the country. According to the study being released today, there were 1.2 million abortions performed in the U.S. in 2005; that's eight percent fewer than in the 2000.

Rachel Jones, the lead author of the study says it's not just the raw numbers that are going down.

Ms. RACHEL JONES (Researcher): In 2005 we had an abortion rate of 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women age 15 to 44.

ROVNER: That's down considerably, she says.

Ms. JONES: From a high point of 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women in 1980.

ROVNER: The number of abortion providers also continued its decline. Jones says you can't tie the two numbers together directly in most cases. The drop in the actual abortions could stem from women with unintended pregnancies finding it more difficult to obtain the procedure.

Ms. JONES: It can also be that women are doing a better job of using contraception and therefore there's less demand, there's fewer unintended pregnancies and less demand for abortion services.

ROVNER: But in some cases, she says, there is a fairly direct link. In Mississippi, for example, where the abortion rate declined by 17 percent...

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

ROVNER: The two percent decline in abortion providers in this survey, however, is much smaller than the double-digit decreases of previous surveys. A major reason, says Jones, is the increase in providers offering medical as opposed to surgical abortions, in most cases via the abortion pill RU-486.

Ms. JONES: And we estimate if it weren't for these providers who offer only early medical abortions, that the number of providers would have declined by eight percent instead of by two percent.

ROVNER: On the other hand, Jones says 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. Still, 13 percent of women now use an abortion pill to end their pregnancies. That number is rising fast, and it alarms people like Cathy Ruse. She's senior fellow for Legal Studies at the Family Research Council.

Ms. CATHY RUSE (Family Research Council): RU-486 is killing women. Twelve women have died from RU-486, and there have been hundreds of reports of serious adverse health consequences. Serious life-threatening hemorrhaging, 400 reports of required surgery following RU-486. It's a serious problem.

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

Ms. RUSE: We still have 1.2 million abortions in America every year, and that is a national tragedy. Our abortion rate is still higher than every other nation in the Western world. We can do better than that.

ROVNER: Despite the disagreements over the relative merits of the abortion pill, however, remember this - next week, when sign-wielding pro-choice and pro-life 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.

Julie Rovner, NPR News.

COHEN: As we just heard in Julie Rovner's story, the United States still has the highest of abortion rate in the Western world and yet it's a topic we haven't been hearing too much about in the current presidential campaign. Most polls show that few Americans list abortion as the most important issue for them in the upcoming election, but polls also show nearly half say they need to know a candidate's position on abortion.

Here to talk us through those positions is NPR's Julie Rovner once again. Welcome back, Julie.

ROVNER: Thank you.

COHEN: Let's start off with the Republican candidates. Now, they almost all now say that they are against abortion. Why is there controversy?

ROVNER: Well, the Republicans are trying to differentiate themselves from each other. On the one hand we have the hardcore conservative - that's Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. They are appealing to the evangelicals, for whom this is really a make or break issue. Then there's the Republicans who are trying to appeal to the Republican moderates too, people like John McCain, who in fact does have a 100 percent pro-life voting record in the Senate but doesn't really wear it on a sleeve like some of the other ones do.

And the we have what I call the changelings - Mitt Romney who used to be pro-choice but now says he's pro-life; and Rudy Giuliani, who says he's still pro-choice but he would appoint judges to the Supreme Court who he says would be strict constructionists who might overturn Roe v. Wade.

I think one of the more interesting twists on the Republican side in the abortion debate came in November when the National Right to Life Committee, the biggest anti-abortion group, endorsed not Mike Huckabee, as many expected, but Fred Thompson. John McCain, of course, despite his pro-life voting record, National Right to Life doesn't like because of his efforts on campaigning finance reform, which has hundred some of the National Right to Life Committee's own advocacy effort.

COHEN: Lots going on on the Republican side. Let's switch now to the Democrat candidates. The major candidates left in the race, they all seem to be pro-choice, so it seems like it's pretty straightforward there - or is it?

ROVNER: Well, yes, it would seem like it would be pretty straightforward, but in fact there has been a really nasty fight going on that I think hasn't gotten very much coverage between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over Senator Obama's voting record when he was in the Illinois State Senate. It turns out he voted present on a number of abortion bills, and now the fight is whether he voted present at the behest of some abortion rights groups or whether he just did that because he wanted to duck the issues.

Illinois Planned Parenthood says, no, we asked him to vote present, and Illinois now says no, we didn't. Now it turns out that the two groups (unintelligible) so in fact, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and John Edwards, the three top candidates, are pretty, you know, down the line pro-choice, according to all of the groups that measure these things.

COHEN: On both sides, almost all we've been hearing about these past few days has been the economy, which is also a very important topic. But what about abortion? Do you think it's likely to resurface as another major issue in this race down the road?

ROVNER: I think it will. I think when you end up with a Democratic candidate, one, and one Republican candidate, we will see abortion as a more important issue. I don't think it will rival the economy and the war in Iraq and health care reform and, you know, the big issues that we see when we look at the polls, but I think certainly there is a lot at stake. President Bush's two Supreme Court appointees have already produced a reversal in a key abortion case.

They upheld the partial birth abortion ban act. The next appointee to the Supreme Court could, in fact, be the key vote for overturning Roe v. Wade. Who becomes the next president and appoints the next Supreme Court justice is going to be important, so I think abortion will be an important issue in the general election race.

COHEN: NPR's Julie Rovner. Thanks.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

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