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More than four decades after Roe v. Wade, abortion remains a major political issue. But the number of American women seeking abortions has steadily declined. A report out today shows the abortion rate recently fell to its lowest level since the landmark Supreme Court decision. NPR's Sarah McCammon has more.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: The abortion rate hit its peak in the early 1980s at more than 29 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. In recent years, the rate has fallen to around half that. That's according to new data for 2014 released by the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports legalized abortion. It's the lowest level since 1973, the year abortion became legal nationwide. Lead author Rachel Jones is a research scientist with Guttmacher.
RACHEL JONES: There is some evidence that, at least in some states, decreased access to abortion is contributing to the decline in abortion.
MCCAMMON: Some states like Texas that have enacted new abortion restrictions have seen clinics close in recent years. Jones says their report found fewer clinics didn't always translate to fewer abortions, though. For example, the number of clinics went up in the Northeast. But the abortion rate in the region still went down.
JONES: So if you have abortion declining in states that aren't restrictive, this suggests that there's something else going on.
MCCAMMON: That something, she says, appears to be better access to contraception. For more than a decade, Jones notes, growing numbers of women have been using long-acting birth control options like IUDs, which are highly effective and last for years. The dropping abortion rate is drawing praise from both sides of the abortion debate, although for different reasons. Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards says it shows the importance of giving women access to better contraception.
CECILE RICHARDS: There's just no way to overstate the difference that this has made in this country. And unlike other public health issues, where we're really not sure how to solve them, this is a problem that - we know the solution collectively.
MCCAMMON: As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, and Republicans in Congress vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Richards and other abortion-rights advocates are gearing up for fights over reproductive health policy. Republicans have promised to make cutting federal funding for services provided by Planned Parenthood a top priority. For Chuck Donovan, President of the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute, a trend toward fewer abortions is good news.
CHUCK DONOVAN: By and large, this is encouraging for a country that, obviously, remains deeply discomfited and divided about the benefits of abortion to the public.
MCCAMMON: Anti-abortion advocates tend to de-emphasize contraception as a driver of the declining rate. Donovan thinks people's attitudes are turning against abortion. That's despite research by the Pew Center suggesting public opinion on the issue is largely stable. Rachel Jones with Guttmacher says it's not just that fewer women are choosing abortion.
JONES: Abortion is going down, and births aren't going up. And what we're seeing are fewer women getting pregnant in the first place.
MCCAMMON: Meanwhile, the Guttmacher report also found that, in 2013, the total number of abortions nationwide fell below 1 million for the first time since 1974, a decline that continued the following year. Sarah McCammon, NPR News.
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