Why Have Abortion Rates Stopped Dropping?

Abortion rates have generally fallen since the 1980s for a variety of reasons including greater access to contraception and the availability of over-the-counter emergency contraception. But in recent years, according to a new study by the Guttmacher Institute, abortion rates have stalled, raising questions about whether pregnant women have access to a full range of reproductive options and choice.

The study reports:

Nationwide, the number of abortions peaked in 1990, at 1.61 million, and dropped 25 percent, to 1.21 million, by 2005. Similarly, the abortion rate declined 29 percent over the same period, from 27.4 per 1,000 women aged 15-44 to 19.4 per 1,000.

But between 2005 and 2008, the rate ticked up by 1 percent. If this reflects a plateau in abortion rates, it’s unclear what’s driving the trend. Has contraception become too expensive? Harder to access? Has abstinence-only education kept young people from take precautions against unintended pregnancies? Whatever the reasons, here’s the message Guttmacher President Sharon Camp takes from the report:

In this time of heightened politicization around abortion, our stalled progress should be an urgent message to policymakers that we need to do more to increase access to contraceptive services to prevent unintended pregnancy, while ensuring access to abortion services for the many women who still need them

Ensuring access to abortion can be difficult in an atmosphere where the government or insurance companies don’t want to pay for the procedure, federal and state lawmakers are drafting legislation to make abortions ever more difficult for women to obtain, and anti-abortion extremists are cranking up the hateful rhetoric and violence at clinics.

This post is a part of Blog for Choice Day.

Then there are the economic barriers: Abortion might be prohibitively expensive for some low-income women. And they may have to drive to the next county to find a clinic  because, as Guttmacher reported in 2008, the number of U.S. abortion providers has been in a steady decline, peaking in 1982 at 2,900 facilities and falling to 1,800 by 2005. In that year, 87 percent of U.S. counties–home to 35 percent of women ages 15-44–lacked an abortion provider .

Even if women can reach a clinic, it might refuse to provide an abortion past a certain number of weeks into the pregnancy, or require a teenager to get her parent’s consent first. Another alarming trend Guttmacher researchers and others have identified is the routine harassment of abortion providers, which have ranged over the years from picketing to bombings to assassinations.

The scarcity of providers reveals how abortion, as a public health issue, has been marginalized from mainstream healthcare discussions. In addition, one of the main reasons women decide to get abortions is that socioeconomic hardship makes childbearing and raising a family a huge burden. That means abortion is increasingly an issue not just of reproductive rights but also economic justice.

The new data helps illuminate the landscape of reproductive rights in the new decade: a complex mix of choice and limitations in health, wealth and geography, all of which conspire to make a woman’s deeply personal decision into an intensely political one.

Image from the Guttmacher Institute.


  1. Two years ago I went back to school, a technical school, at age 53. I live in an area where there is safe, available, affordable access to birth control and abortion – and condoms are in every store. What I saw in school (my interaction with younger women being limited otherwise) were many young women, of all races and backgrounds, who were pregnant and had not even the slightest thought of having an abortion. They didn't have employment or health insurance so they are taken care of by the county; they also are receiving financial assistance for living expenses, unmarried and had no intention of marrying, some had other children from different fathers – only a tiny percent of the fathers had anything to do with assisting these young women. I spoke to many and asked why they weren't using birth control let alone protection from STDs – they simply shrugged their shoulders collectively and thought I was simply old and hated children (not the case.) I've been married for almost 31 years, we never wanted children and therefore took the appropriate action to avoid pregnancy.
    It almost seems to me that these young women want to be mothers and stay on county/state/government assistance. They have no concern for STDs and they think this makes them liberated and free. It is not access to birth control or abortion that is the problem, it is that these young women don't want to use it or have it. There is a culture, at least in this area, but consider how popular television has made pregnancy in young unmarried women, that encourages these women to become pregnant, to be unmarried and going no where with their lives. These young women even resent the suggestion that they might want to either use birth control or simply close their legs. On an internet forum I belonged to, one young woman wrote a rant about older, man-hating feminists telling the feminists to shut up, the young women are smart enough to run their own lives and don't need any advice about not having children before they are married among other things.
    I had many girls listen to me talk, but the thought of having an abortion was offensive to them. I suppose having illegitimate children that one could not afford to care for was acceptable, but abortion was not. I think the problem is the young women themselves in many case.

    • Hey, I am an “illegitimate child”. Thinking a pregnant woman who won’t abort should have to marry is no better than thinking that a pregnant woman should have to give birth. Women’s rights and freedoms are more important than your ninny picking. I can not tell you how much discrimination I have been met with for being an “illegitimate child”. What the hell is an illegitimate child? What, is a person not a real person because they carry their mother’s name and not their father’s or because they were raised by a single mom? My mom is a great mom. … The “problem” is not a lower abortion rate or women CHOOSING not to have an abortion (are you pro-choice or not, lady?), the problem is abortions made illegal, unsafe, and unattainable. Get with the program.

      • i think perhaps there seemed to be a miss-communication. no one was saying these women should be married. instead, the point was that these are young women who do not have the resources to have these children and clearly lacking in the education of healthy sexuality and family planning. basically these poverty stricken, ignorant very young women then become a burden on the state (not to mention creating a vicious cycle of poverty and all the horrors that come with that). having a spouse or partner helps with both the financial struggle of child rearing and parenting.

    • PioneerGrrrl says:

      I remember a high school friend of mine who actually wanted to have children.

      Both of us grew up in a very upscale suburb–which promoted abstinence-only curriculum in the local schools. Her family was involved with a very conservative church.

      Finally becoming that teen mother woke her up very fast. It was hard to make ends meet when the father never provided child support. Babies weren't as 'cute' when they were hungry and/or soiled.

      The problem is not the young women, it's the lack of options and resources which they have to work through issues. My friend (and others) were given messages that said "being a mom always provides love" instead of understanding it requires a lot of work and resources.

      If they found another outlet for obtaining the love which they were after, these people might not have wanted to become teen parents.

      They might have actually found the love they were seeking–and through a more age-appropriate outlet too!

  2. go LOCAL for MUNICIPAL funding!
    Thank you for signing a contraception petition. Please read my petitions advocating municipal environmental
    contraception funding, which is increasingly politically realistic due
    to The Big Sort in more and more towns, and helps women’s right’s, quality of life, and school taxes as well as being at least 5 times more cost-effective than any other environmental effort.



    The prochoice and contraception movements are placing too high a priority on defensive actions in the red states when we should be going on the offensive, the side of “change”, in the blue states, and cities. The worst places will get even worse no matter what we do, but the unrealized political potential, the low hanging fruit, is in making the best places even better. This opportunity is being caused by The Big Sort.

  3. believing that planned parenthood wants an end to abortion is as much as Phillip Morris wants to end smoking…
    Why do most ob/gyns not do abortions?

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