Why it's so hard for people to understand what's caused the drop in abortions
With the CDC’s release last week of Abortion Surveillance – 2011, showing a historic continuing drop in U.S. abortions, commentators have been putting out columns with their spin of choice or confessing that they’re not sure what to make of it.
The prevailing “spin” that abortions are dropping because of greater use of the more effective contraceptives flies in the face of the data, as we shall see.
It’s obvious why people spin and lie. But why are rational people with no vested interest in promoting “more effective contraceptives” a/k/a "reversible sterilization" confused? I think the confusion arises from two factors:
First, nearly everyone has been convinced by over four decades of Planned Parenthood et al. marketing, by sex ed and liberal propaganda that “well, kids are going to have sex anyway,” so the best you can do is reduce the risk of some types of STDs (but not the viral kind!) with condoms and reduce the risk of pregnancy with enough steroidal hormones to disrupt their healthy reproductive systems (and close your eyes to the appalling side effects).
Second, they don’t know where to look for the most plausible explanation: a different CDC report, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance (YRBS), for example.
Before we get to that, however, I want to give readers a one-question-quiz: Looking at the two Tables below, with the latest abortion figures reported by the CDC, is there a statistic that kind of pops out at you? One that begs an explanation?
Reported % of abortions by age group and year 2002 and 2011 and percent change
(From Table 4 of Abortion Surveillance – 2011)
|< 15||0.6||0.4||↓ – 33.3%|
|15-19||16.9||13.4||↓ – 20.7%|
|20-24||33.4||32.9||↓ – 1.5%|
|25-29||22.6||24.9||↑ + 10.2%|
|30-34||14.9||15.8||↑ + 6.0%|
|35-39||8.4||8.9||↑ + 6.0%|
|≥ 40||3.2||3.6||↑ + 12.5%|
Abortion rate by age group, year and % change (rate = abortions/1000 women)
(From Table 4)
|< 15||1.4||0.9||↓ – 35.7%|
|15-19||16.0||10.6||↓ – 33.8%|
|20-24||31.9||25.2||↓ – 21.0%|
|25-29||23.4||19.6||↓ – 16.2%|
|30-34||13.9||12.8||↓ – 7.9%|
|35-39||7.4||7.5||↑ + 1.4%|
|≥ 40||2.6||2.8||↑ + 7.7%|
Alert readers will have noted that while abortion rates have dropped significantly among women 20-34, they’ve sunk much further for women under 20, which is also seen in the much smaller percentage of abortions in the under 20 age groups and corresponding increases in the percentage of abortions among those 25 and up. In fact, the drop in abortions among teens and under-25’s is the major cause (along with growing pro-life sentiment) for the overall reduction in abortions.
The change is even more evident when we look at figures from 1990-2010: abortion rates for girls 15-19 dropped 71% in that time period, compared to drops of 52.4% (age 20-24), 40% (25-29), 32% (30-34), 29% (35-39) and 13% (40 and up). Pregnancy rates for girls 15-17 and 18-19 dropped 52% and 36% respectively between 1990 and 2009, a much higher rate than declines among older age groups.
What factors influence the number of abortions in any group of 100 young women?
(1) Because abortion presupposes pregnancy, the number of pregnant women in the group will greatly influence the number of abortions. No pregnancies, no abortions. If 100 women are abstinent, no pregnancies will occur and no abortions will be sought.
(2) If some or all are sexually active, of reproductive age and not sterilized, some will become pregnant. That number depends on how many are sexually active and not sterilized (surgically or by Essure or long-acting reverisble contraceptives "LARCs), that is, they are not contracepting or they are using the most common forms of contraception (with failures rates under typical use of 9-13%).
(3) Among the women who are pregnant out of the group of 100, pregnancies will end in one of three ways: full-term birth, abortion or miscarriage. Depending on women’s personal beliefs, their fears, abandonment or coercion from the child’s father or their parents, and many other factors personal to their situations, they may then choose birth or abortion.
Abortions, therefore, may decline due to (1) greater levels of abstinence, (2) greater levels of permanent or temporary sterilization compared to no contraception or only partially effective contraception or (3) due to pregnant women deciding to give birth instead of aborting.
Now, there are basically two effective ways that heterosexual girls and women of reproductive age can avoid pregnancy: (1) abstinence (total or periodic — using the proven methods of natural family planning to abstain from sexual intercourse during the fertile period) and (2) sterilization, which can be permanent – through surgery or Essure – or reversible, using LARCs, like IUDs and implants.
What about all the other contraceptives? The most common methods, as noted, reduce the risk of pregnancy in individuals but are far from foolproof. Typical use failure rates (i.e. pregnancy rates) with the pill (also patch and ring) among lower-income women (< 200% of the poverty level) under 25 years of age are about 13% (i.e., 13/100 of these women will become pregnant each year). However, when those women are cohabiting (and therefore having sex more frequently) one quarter of women 20-24 years of age and almost half of women under age 20 will become pregnant within a year.
Can you guess which successful approach to pregnancy avoidance has been taken by teens between 1991 and 2011: abstinence or sterilization (permanent or reversible)?
Fewer teens have ever had sex and fewer are currently sexually active
Turning to the YRBS (June 2014), we learn the following: there has been a significant decrease in the percentage of high school students who have ever had sexual intercourse, from 54.1% in 1991 to 46.8% in 2013 (Table 63); the number of sexually active high school students is much lower still, only 34% in 2013 (Table 65). So, it seems that greater abstinence has contributed to the decline in pregnancies and, therefore, abortions.
Have more and better contraceptive use also contributed to the drop in teen abortions?
The impact of more teens using contraceptives and switching to more effective forms, especially LARCs, is negligible or nonexistent. Among the 34% of teens who are sexually active, only 1.6% used an IUD or implant at last intercourse and only 4.7% used the patch, ring or a shot – which are equally ineffective as the pill. And pill use has actually declined among teens – 20.8% among sexually active teens in 1991 and 19% use among them in 2013.
Are fewer women in general experiencing unplanned pregnancies for whatever reason, such as their use of reversible sterilization with LARCs?
Not really: The proportion of unintended pregnancies in the U.S. has actually increased, from 48% in 2001 to 51% of pregnancies in 2008, according to the latest data available.
Have attitudes of girls and women toward unplanned pregnancy changed, in that more are choosing life for their child?
YES! In 2001, 47% of unintended pregnancies (excluding miscarriages) ended in abortion and 53% ended in birth. As of 2008, 40% ended in abortion and 60% in birth.
Bottom line: abortions continue to decline in the United States because more young people are refraining from sexual activity longer and because women who do become pregnant are opting to choose in favor of life.
Susan E. Willsis a senior writer for Aleteia.org’s English language edition.