Explaining the Decline in Abortion Rates

As faithful Catholics welcome the recent reports of the significant declines in abortion rates throughout the country, some on the “pro-choice” side decry the declines. One abortion advocate has actually called the decline in abortion rates a “worrisome trend” that suggests the possibility of an “increasing stigma” surrounding abortion—a change in the norms and values that have supported abortion for more than four decades now.

For some abortion rights advocates—including Steph Herold, a leader of The Sea Change, a program that is “dedicated to transforming the culture of stigma” that had historically surrounded abortion in the pre-Roe days—focusing on the declining rates “has the dangerous possibility of stigmatizing abortion.” Concerned by the media reports on declining rates of abortion, Herold complains that “Highlighting the decreased abortion rate as a success suggests that abortion is happening more than it should, and that there are some conditions for which abortions should and should not occur. It also implies that there is something wrong with abortion, that the abortion rate should be low because abortion is inherently different from other parts of health care.”

Dedicated to “reducing reproductive stigma,” the vision of The Sea Change program is to “integrate abortion and other reproductive health services into mainstream health care.” As a spokesman for Sea Change, Herold suggests that instead of focusing on the lowered abortion rate, we should be asking “how do people’s perceptions of their community’s social norms around pregnancy impact what they think they should do about an unintended pregnancy?” Herold knows that the greatest threat to abortion is not public policy mandating waiting periods or access to ultrasounds prior to abortion. She knows that the greatest threat to abortion is changing the culture of abortion—the norms, values, beliefs and behaviors that surround abortion.

Herold knows that the greatest threat to the abortion industry is the change in perception—the ways in which the hearts and minds of young women and young men have changed about the reality and the humanity of the unborn child. This emerging generation is more “fetally aware” than any generation that has preceded it—the millennial generation knows that a pregnancy involves a living child because they have seen that child in an ultrasound image. As Charmaine Yoest, President of Americans United for Life, has said, “There’s an entire generation of women who saw a sonogram as their first baby picture…. There’s an increased awareness of the humanity of the baby before it is born.”  Millennials cannot be deceived by the “pro-choice” rhetoric of the past that described the unborn child as a clump of cells—they know that the unborn are in fact very young, very small children. And, this is likely driving the declines.

Most in the pro-life camp credit the increase in laws restricting abortion for the declines in abortion rates. For those of us who have supported the incrementalist approach—applauding every small step that individual states have taken to decrease abortion through mandatory waiting periods, parental permission requirements, and the availability of ultrasounds for women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy—there is a tendency to credit these public policy changes as contributing to the declines. But, while it is possible that the rhetoric surrounding the passage of these laws may have contributed to the change in attitudes toward protecting the unborn child, the reality is that the declines in abortion rates began in 2008—well before the implementation of the pro-life legislation.

And, even though many states have implemented pro-life public policy, some of the greatest declines in abortion rates have occurred in states like Rhode Island which saw a 22 percent decrease in abortion between 2010 and 2014; and Connecticut which experienced a 21 percent decrease during the same period. Neither of these New England states implemented the kinds of public policies that might have predicted these declines. In fact, Connecticut has some of the most permissive abortion policies in the country—it is one of seven states that have “enacted declarations affirmatively protecting a woman’s right to choose an abortion.” Connecticut has no waiting period for an abortion after counseling, and there are no requirements that an abortion must be performed by a licensed physician. Connecticut also does not require parental consent in the case of a minor requesting an abortion.  Still, there has been a 21 percent reduction in abortion in the state.

The “pro-choice” side takes credit for these reductions—even as they decry them. Claiming that the states with some of the largest reductions in abortions are the states with the most permissive laws, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards claims that the decline in abortion rates is due to “better access to birth control and sex education…. More restrictive abortion laws do not reduce the need for abortion.” The fact that the more liberal states like New York, Washington, and Oregon had significant declines even as they maintained unrestricted access to abortion might have given some support to Richards’ contentions. Yet, the states that have been most aggressive in passing anti-abortion laws—including Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma have seen the greatest abortion reductions. Reports from the State Department of Health in Indiana—a state that has put several laws in place that discourage or restrict women from ending their pregnancies—show that the number of abortions in the state fell from 10,031 in 2010 to 8,027 during 2013—a decline of nearly 20 percent—well above the 12 percent national decline for the same period.

There are now nineteen states with laws that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortion. Four states (including Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, and South Dakota) have laws that would automatically ban abortion if Roe were to be overturned. But, Louisiana—a state with strong restrictions against abortion—saw an increase of 12 percent between 2010 and 2014. Louisiana was recently honored by Americans United for Life as the No. 1 State in taking steps to reduce access to abortion. A recent Associated Press article by David Crary suggests that part of the increase abortion in Louisiana (and Michigan which saw an 18 percent increase in the rate of abortion) was due to women coming from other states where new restrictions and clinic closures have limited abortion access.

It is difficult to say exactly why we are seeing these dramatic declines. A sociological explanation for this would suggest a shift in societal attitudes—a change in the hearts and minds of young women and men—in the pro-life direction. While Gallup continues to report that support for a woman’s legal right to choose remains strong with little change from the past decades, individual decisions about one’s own unborn child—even in the case of an unplanned pregnancy—are not hypothetical decisions, they are real decisions with real consequences and it seems that women are increasingly making the decision to “choose life.”

According to Guttmacher, the research institute of the abortion rights industry, a total of 267 abortion restrictions have been enacted in 31 states since 2011. Among them are measures that ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Public policy like the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act changes the conversation because we cannot help but become increasingly aware of the horror of abortion—and the fact that a late term abortion painfully dismembers an unborn child. Medical experts have testified that by 20 weeks after fertilization, all the physical structures necessary to experience pain have developed. Responding to this medical fact, Nebraska, Kansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Dakota, Texas and West Virginia have laws that protect pain-capable unborn children.

It is likely that it is uncomfortable conversations like these that are leading to the change in hearts and minds—even in the most liberal states like Connecticut and California. A nationwide poll of 1,623 registered voters in November, 2013 by the Quinnipiac University Survey Research Center revealed that 60 percent of all respondents would support a law such as the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks, while only 33 percent opposed such legislation. Women voters split 59-35 percent in support of the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Now is the time to expand these conversations—no matter how difficult they are—because it may be the process of lawmaking itself that is contributing to the decline. Even a loss at the legislative level can be a victory for the unborn child if the conversation surrounding the horror of abortion can begin again to stigmatize what should be a shameful act for all involved—including the lawmakers.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Anne Hendershott

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Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). She is also the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Catholic Church (2013).

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