By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research
On the eve of Thanksgiving, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released its latest abortion surveillance report, with figures from 2013. Abortion numbers, rates, and ratios all dropped by about 5%, leading to numbers not seen since Roe v. Wade took away legal protections for unborn children in 1973. Pro-lifers have much for which to be thankful.
With such significant and broad based declines, the analysis of trends is (happily) complicated. Abortions were down in nearly every state, among women in nearly every category, and have been trending this way for some time.
A closer look tells us more about why this is the case. It also reveals a few areas of concern, making it clear that our efforts count and that no gain can ever be taken for granted.
Hard Data and Soft Numbers
The number of abortions is considerably down in the U.S. That much is abundantly clear. Numbers from the CDC are regular, the format is consistent year to year, and nearly every indicator points the same direction.
The CDC received reports of 664,435 abortions from state health departments (and the District of Columbia) in 2013, nearly 35,000 fewer than it reported just a year ago (699,202).
However this number comes with a huge caveat. The CDC has been missing abortions from California, the nation’s most populous state, since 1998, as well as any abortion data from Maryland and New Hampshire.
The nation’s other major data source, the private Guttmacher Institute, does have data for the missing states. Guttmacher recorded just over a million abortions (1,058,490) in 2011, its most recent study.
Guttmacher’s numbers are considered more accurate because it surveys abortion clinics directly, rather than merely accept numbers from state health departments, but it often goes years between surveys. The next one, presumably covering 2014, is expected to come out next January.
Still, the CDC does receive numbers from the vast majority of states and these can be compared from year to year to see the unfolding of national trends. Looked at over the past decade and a half, 2013 was clearly not a statistical blip, but the continuation of a positive long term downward trend.
Not only does the CDC show abortions plunging 22.8% over the previous 15 years, but even more remarkably dropping 15.8% over just the last five recorded years.
Abortion rates and ratios confirm that this is not merely some function of population or migration.
The CDC’s definition of the abortion rate is the number of abortions per thousand women of reproductive age (ages 15-44). In 2013, it was 12.5 , lower than any other rate recorded since Roe was decided in 1973, when the CDC recorded a rate of 14.
Again, this does not include abortions from California, New Hampshire, and Maryland. So rates adjusted with data from those states might be somewhat higher, although no one expects to be anywhere near what they were in the 1980s and 1990s .
The highest abortion rate the CDC ever recorded was 25/1,000 in 1980. (Abortion rates first hit 21/1,00 in 1976 and stayed at 20/1,000 or above through 1997.) Note that the recent figure is half that.
The abortion ratio for the CDC measures the number of abortions for every 1,000 live births. In 2013 it was 200, also approaching a record low. The only year since Roe the CDC recorded a lower abortion ratio was in 1973 itself, when it recorded 196.3 abortions for every 1,000 live births.
Ratios in California and the other two states may well be higher than the national average, but would not push this anywhere near the 364.1 recorded in 1984. (Historically CDC abortion ratios reached the 300 level in 1976 and remained above 300 until 1997.)
Evidence in the states
Recorded abortions were down in 40 out of 47 states (again, the CDC has had no numbers for California, Maryland, and New Hampshire since 1998) and in the District of Columbia. Rates and ratios moved largely in the same downward direction (abortion rates down in 39 of 47 states, ratios down in 37 of 47), with only six states showing increased rates, 8 showing increased ratios.
In a couple of states where changes in abortion totals were very small, the rates and/or ratios stayed the same (e.g., there were six fewer abortions in 2013 in Mississippi than in 2012, so abortion rates and ratios were not significantly affected).
In the few states where abortions did appear to increase, this was generally not by much. A couple of states increased only by a few dozen, others by less than a thousand.
Michigan was the state that reported the most sudden and significant increase, from 23,230 in 2012 to 26,120 in 2013, an increase of 2,890 in just a year’s time. However nearly all of that increase occurred in three counties in and around Detroit – Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne.
Michigan’s case can be instructive when trying to determine the reason for statistical outliers.
Sometimes a new megaclinic opens in an area, spurring sudden increases. Planned Parenthood bought a non-abortion performing clinic in Oakland County and began offering chemical abortion at its Detroit location. But its plans for a new megaclinic in the area fell through, making it unlikely this was a main cause (see here).
But Chris Gast, director of communications and education for Right to Life of Michigan, says the more likely reason was simply “better reporting after our Prolife Omnibus Act of 2012 went into effect.” That bill increased state scrutiny on abortion clinics, requiring that they were properly inspected and licensed.
Inspections resulted in the closure of several clinics in those counties around Detroit in 2013. These closures may have moved abortions from clinics that did not report to those that did (details can be found in Right to Life of Michigan’s 11/13/14 online blog found here).
In other words, while more abortions were thus reported, it may not actually be the case that 2,890 more abortions were performed.
Dramatic drops were more the norm in 2013. There were 3,424 fewer abortions in Florida, 2,453 fewer in Illinois, and 6,324 fewer abortions in New York. There were 2,428 fewer abortions in Pennsylvania, 2,257 fewer in Ohio, 2,064 fewer in Virginia, and 1,643 fewer in Tennessee.
The media has made much of clinic closings in Texas, where abortions dropped 4,449 from 2012 to 2013. While some of those clinics may have closed due to the state’s redirection of family planning funds away from abortion performing centers, the trend in Texas has been down for some time, pointing to a generally reduced demand.
The number of abortions dropped by nearly 14,000 from 2006 to 2012 , and more than 24,000 from the all time peak of 92,681 in 1990.
Some of these were bigger states, so their drops, in numbers, were bigger to start with. But some smaller states that did not have the huge abortion totals to begin with still saw drops that were, for them, quite significant. These decreases were reflected in big drops in their abortion rates and ratios.
While Delaware had just 781 fewer abortions in 2013 than 2012, because of the population, this represented a large drop in the abortion rate of 4.4 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age (from 21.3 to 16.9). Delaware’s abortion ratio, measuring the number of abortions per 1,000 live births, took a dive as well. It decreased by 46 –from 327/1,000 in 2012 to 281/1,000 in 2013.
Delaware was perhaps the most dramatic drop, but it was not the only one. Hawaii’s abortion rate dropped 3.3 and its ratio dropped 45. Nevada’s abortion rate went from 13 to 10.9, and its abortion ratio from 207 to 173. Connecticut’s rate dropped by 2/1,000 for women of child-bearing age and its abortion ratio dropped by 34.
Why the Falling Numbers?
Determining why these drops happened in a particular state is complicated. Some of the states seeing big drops passed legislation, others did not. Perhaps some have better pro-life outreach than others. A big clinic may have closed or a high volume abortionist may have retired.
Several states passed laws protecting pain-capable unborn children from abortion in 2012 and 2013. Others passed bans on sex-selection abortion. States have attempted to redirect funding from Planned Parenthood, the nation’s largest abortion performer.
Some of the state declines may have been in direct response to some of this legislation and the debate surrounding its passage, some may have been the cumulative effect of pro-life laws such as parental involvement and right to know legislation passed years earlier.
Something important to keep in mind that is often overlooked: The impact of legislation, however, is not necessarily limited to the state where the law is debated and passed. In many states, the nearest clinic is just across the border in a neighboring state, and the radio, television, and newspapers may be centered there as well.
Given modern social media, even a story from a state halfway across the country may show up in one’s news feed, provoking thought and research about the skills, motives, and integrity of the local abortion “provider” (think of convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell, who plied his sick trade in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Louisiana). The same internet that gives women information about the filthy conditions at their local abortion clinic may also expose them to positive life-affirming alternatives to abortion.
The closure of one large abortion mill can have a huge impact on a multi-state area. In Guttmacher’s last abortion report, nearly all of the drop of the approximately 150,000 abortions that occurred between 2008 and 2011 was recorded in clinics that performed a thousand or more abortions a year. About half of that occurred at clinics performing 5,000 or more abortions a year.
Whether a clinic closed due to scandal (like Gosnell’s), government funding cuts or clinic safety regulations, decreased demand, or simply the retirement of an old abortionist may not be as relevant as the fact that the clinic closed and stopped its marketing and performance of abortion.
Some of these factors likely played a role in several of these states, but the broad-based nature of the decline is an indicator of continued movement in the pro-life direction. The “product” simply isn’t selling as well any more. Even with the new packaging of the abortion pill, many women are rejecting the abortion “solution,” and either taking steps to prevent pregnancy (abstinence or birth control) or choosing to have their babies if they become pregnant.
These latest numbers from the CDC are confirmation that America is moving, perhaps even accelerating, towards a culture more hospitable to unborn life.
That is encouraging news for which we can all be thankful.