With the 2020 presidential contest stirring up abortion rights battles, it is illuminating to note a new report that shows how significantly the numbers of reported abortions have plunged. This comes as a wave of abortion restrictions have been passed by conservative state legislatures.
Although the report by the Guttmacher Institute covers the period from 2011 to 2017, when 32 states passed 394 new restrictions, the authors say, the rate decreased in almost every state and without a clear pattern linked to the new restrictions.
In fact, abortion rates actually rose in four of the states that enacted new restrictions during that period — North Carolina, Mississippi, Wyoming and Georgia.
Bottom line, says Guttmacher — which favors abortion rights but has produced research that is reliable enough to be quoted by both sides — the number of abortions in the United States fell by 8% between 2014 and 2017 to its lowest level since the procedure was legalized by the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.
But the research does not cover the more recent period during which several states passed particularly severe laws to effectively ban most abortions — many of which face current court challenges.
In May, for example, Alabama passed a near-outright ban — including in cases of rape or incest. Seven other states passed “heartbeat” bills — North Dakota, Iowa, Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia — which ban abortion as soon as a fetal “heartbeat” can be detected.
So far this year, more than 20 other states have introduced or proposed some form of restriction on abortion, largely aimed at entreating the new 5-4 conservative majority that President Donald Trump’s two new Supreme Court justices have created.
Yet, the Guttmacher research of the years leading up to that new majority suggests that the decline has less to do with state abortion restrictions than with increased use of contraceptives and fewer pregnancies. If restrictions were the main driving reason, as a Guttmacher spokesperson said, we should expect birthrates to increase, not drop.
That, to me, is a vindication of President Bill Clinton’s mantra from the 1990s that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” Given the choice and support to ease the pressures brought on by an unplanned pregnancy, more women will choose childbearing instead of abortion.
Unfortunately, of course, the anti-abortion movement is committed to opposing all abortion legalization, except perhaps in cases of rape or incest — and sometimes not even that.
That’s also why an underground market in illegal and mail-order abortion and contraceptives appears to be thriving, although accurate figures are hard to find. The old image of back-alley abortionists is fading, despite occasional high-profile horror stories, such as the mysterious discovery of more than 2,000 fetal remains in the Will County, Ill., garage of the late physician Ulrich Klopfer, who performed abortions at three clinics in Indiana.
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Cases like that of Philadelphia’s Kermit Gosnell, convicted in the deaths of a woman and of three infants who were born alive, show the class bias in our debate over “life” vs. “choice.” When you have few resources, you have few choices.
We can see that reflected in data regarding abortion and African American women. Although this recent study had no racial breakdown, in 2014 Guttmacher found that black patients accounted for 28% of abortion procedures, compared with 39% for whites, 25% for Hispanic patients and 9% for other races and ethnicities.
As more forms of contraceptives have become available to more women, we have seen pregnancies decrease across racial lines. That’s progress. The political landscape can be a rude and crude place to resolve the clash between “life” and “choice,” but we have to use what we have.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.
© 2019 Chicago Tribune. Tribune News Service