U.S. abortion rates are declining nationwide, and the legislative stampede to get a precedent-overturning case to the Supreme Court isn’t a contributing factor, according to a new study released Wednesday by the Guttmacher Institute. The number of abortions nationwide declined 19 percent from 2011-2017.
Though 32 state legislatures passed 394 new restrictions on abortion from 2011-2017, abortion rates also fell in states with less restrictive laws, the reproductive health and rights research group said in its report. Instead, the biggest reason for the decline is that women aren’t becoming pregnant as often.
If abortion restrictions had been the force behind the abortion decline, birth rates would have increased, the Guttmacher Institute said. Instead, birth rates were down in every nearly every state.
Notably, the report showed the U.S. abortion rate in 2017 was at its lowest level since 1973, when Roe v. Wade was decided. The rate dropped to 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44, a decline of 8 percent from 2014.
While the flurry of anti-abortion legislation isn’t driving down the procedures, restrictions on a medical choice that has been legal for U.S. women for 46 years can “still inflict serious harm,” Elizabeth Nash, a senior policy manager at Guttmacher, said in an emailed statement.
“Underneath the national trend are the individual struggles and burdens that anti-abortion policymakers are creating for people within their states,” Nash said. “We need policies that ensure patients can obtain and afford reproductive health care from contraception, to pregnancy to abortion.”
While the number of clinics that perform abortions increased nationwide from 2011-2017, Guttmacher said women in some areas of the country don’t have a nearby option — especially if they live in the South or the Midwest, where the number of clinics went down 9 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
In the Northeast, the number of clinics increased by 16 percent, and in the West, there were 4 percent more clinics in 2017 than there were in 2011.
In all, there were about 808 clinics providing abortions in 2017, an increase of about 2 percent from 2014. But in 2017, 89 percent of U.S. counties did not have a single clinic that provided abortion services, and 38 percent of women of reproductive age lived in these counties.
One glaring example of restricted access: The last Planned Parenthood clinic providing abortions in Missouri is embroiled in court battles with state regulators who want to shut it down and is hanging on by a thread. That clinic is in St. Louis, about 365 miles away from the far-northwest corner of the state.
Whether it’s Missouri or any other state, “abortion restrictions create barriers for everyone who is trying access an abortion from that state,” Rachel Jones, Guttmacher’s principal research scientist, said in the statement.
“When we talk about the inequities of access, we’re talking about who is able to overcome those barriers — who can afford to take time off work, who can afford transportation, who can afford a hotel, who can find and afford child care,” she said. “As the number of restrictions increases, those inequities grow too.”
Guttmacher said TRAP — targeted regulation of abortion providers — played a big role in shutting down abortion clinics in some states, including Texas and Ohio, making it more difficult to get an abortion.
Missouri is restricting abortion access in other ways, including an eight-week abortion ban currently blocked by a federal court.
A big part of the legislative strategy of abortion foes is to pass laws they know will be challenged in court, with an end-goal of getting a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, newly configured with two conservative justices appointed by President Trump.
The restrictions aren’t doing much to shift public opinion, though.
National polls show unwaning support for abortion rights. The Pew Research Center said last month that support for legal abortion is as high now as it has been in two decades of polling, with 61 percent of U.S. adults saying abortion should be legal in most if not all cases. While the poll showed little appetite among respondents to see a complete reversal of Roe — only three in 10 wanted that — the results showed a major area of concern among the majority to be the same outlined in the Guttmacher report: In the Pew poll, 59 percent said some states are making it too difficult for women to get an abortion.
“Our new findings indicate first and foremost that abortion is a common reproductive health experience in the United States,” Guttmacher President and CEO Herminia Palacio said in the statement. ” Abortion restrictions — whether or not they lead to fewer abortions — are coercive and cruel by design, and intended to impose a heavy emotional and financial toll on anyone seeking an abortion.
“Lowering the abortion rate is not the goal,” she said. “Policy should focus on supporting patients’ health and rights, regardless of how it affects the abortion rate.”
Some other findings from the report:
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