The XX Factor

Sorry, but the Abortion Rate Is Not Going Down Because Women “Choose Life”

Maybe this has something to do with it.  

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The abortion rate is down, and anti-abortion folks would very much like to take credit for it. Last week, David Frum at the Atlantic wrote a piece arguing that “the pro-life movement really does seem to have changed American minds about the morality of abortion,” and that, along with a growing acceptance of single motherhood, has led to a drop in the abortion rate. At the National Review on Wednesday, Ryan T. Anderson and Sarah Torre, while hastening to add that they still think single motherhood is the worst, agree that the dropping abortion rate must be because “more young women are choosing to parent when they understand that there’s a life at stake,” due to four decades of bloody fetus pictures and exhortations to “choose life.”

There’s no reason to believe that any of this is true. Yes, the abortion rate is down. But if that was due to women choosing childbirth over abortion, then we’d see a subsequent spike in the birth rate to go along with the abortion decline. But as Joerg Dreweke at the Guttmacher Institute pointed out in a 2014 analysis of the same abortion numbers Frum is looking at, “the decline in abortion between 2008 and 2011 coincided with a steep national drop in the birthrate”—13 percent and 9 percent, respectively. “By looking at abortion and birth numbers, this point becomes even more clear: Between 2008 and 2011, abortions declined by about 150,000, but births by roughly twice as much (down about 300,000),” he adds. Women aren’t “choosing life” more. On the contrary, they’re just getting pregnant less.

To be fair, Frum anticipated this objection and thought he had answered it: “At any given moment nearly 40 percent of women are using no birth-control method at all. Almost half of all American pregnancies are unintended.” An interesting point, but it doesn’t change the baseline fact that women just aren’t getting pregnant as often. So what’s going on? A sex strike? Or is anal sex is even more popular than my colleague Will Saletan even appreciated in his in-depth report on the matter? Or maybe one National Review commenter was right when he wrote, “There are many women who had so many abortions at a young age they can’t get pregnant now.” (He is not right.) One thing we know for sure is it can’t be that women are giving birth more, because they just aren’t. 

The likeliest explanation is probably the most mundane one. It really is about the contraception. While Frum is correct about the overall levels of contraception use, when you get into the details, a different picture emerges. Dreweke points out that for women younger than 30 who are at the greatest risk of unintended pregnancy, the number “not using any method of contraception dropped by one-fifth.” There’s also reason to believe that women generally are choosing more effective methods, like long-acting contraception methods that have grown dramatically in popularity in recent years.

So while Anderson and Torre might decry the “sexual revolution that decoupled sex from marriage,” that revolution and the way it reduced stigma about contraception use is giving us a lower abortion rate. You’re welcome, anti-choicers.