WASHINGTON (BP) -- After a record low in the U.S. abortion rate, pro-life advocates and an abortion rights research organization have offered differing explanations.
The Guttmacher Institute announced Wednesday (Sept. 18) the abortion rate was 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women age 15 to 44 in 2017, the latest year for which it has statistics. That rate marked an 8 percent drop from the previous figure of 14.6 in 2014. Guttmacher was a Planned Parenthood affiliate from 1977 to 2007, when the abortion rights organization began phasing out its financial support.
The abortion rate was 16.3 in 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court legalized the procedure in its Roe v. Wade decision. The peak for the abortion rate came in 1980, when it was 29.3.
The number of abortions in 2017 was about 862,320, a 7 percent decrease from the previous total of 926,190 in 2014, according to Guttmacher. The new total is the lowest since Roe other than 1973, when there were a reported 744,610 abortions. The largest yearly total of abortions reported by Guttmacher was 1.61 million in 1990.
Pro-life leaders cited the various efforts of the movement as factors in the trend.
"The falling abortion number is partly due to the ceaseless advocacy and ministry of the pro-life community in neighborhoods around this country," said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. "For decades, the pro-life movement has advanced by speaking to consciences with the truth of what unborn human life is and matching that call with real ministry to women in crisis.
"While a lower rate is undoubtedly good news," Moore told Baptist Press in written comments, "this horrific injustice … ought to cause us both to lament and to press on in our efforts in standing against the predatory abortion industry."
Though it reported that states enacted nearly 400 abortion restrictions from 2011 to 2017, the Guttmacher Institute -- formerly a special affiliate of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) for 30 years -- denied such laws were "the main driver" in the decline. It pointed to its finding that the abortion rate declined in 45 states from 2011 to 2017, though only 28 of those states passed one restriction or more during that time period.
Guttmacher acknowledged, however, state restrictions "played a role in shutting down abortion clinics in some states and thereby reducing abortion access."
The drop in the abortion rate, instead, "appears to be related to declines in births and pregnancies overall," according to a policy review by Guttmacher's Elizabeth Nash and Joerg Dreweke. A possible factor is the increased access to contraceptives made possible by the 2010 health care reform law, which requires most private health insurance plans to provide coverage for birth control, they wrote. They also suggested another contributing factor may be a decrease in sexual activity.
Meanwhile, Chuck Donovan -- president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, a pro-life, research organization -- pointed to multiple reasons for the decline, "including factors that Guttmacher does their best to ignore."
"American mothers are increasingly choosing life for their children, as well as choosing to identify themselves with the pro-life cause and pro-life policies," Donovan said in a written statement, adding those policies include state protections for women and children "such as strengthened health and safety standards for abortion facilities, limits on public funding of abortion, parental involvement laws, and increased informed consent."
While abortion numbers are falling, the number and percentage of non-surgical or chemical abortions continue to rise. Of the 862,320 abortions in 2017, 339,640 -- or 39 percent -- were performed by the two-step drug process often referred to as RU-486, according to Guttmacher. In 2014, only 29 percent were chemical abortions. In 2001, it was only five percent.
The increase in chemical abortions "should concern us all as it reveals the abortion industry's increasingly successful effort to cut the overhead costs of surgical abortion while still profiting off the destruction of unborn children and wounding of his or her mother, who is given dangerous abortion drugs and then sent off to pass the body of her aborted child in isolation," Donovan said. "The industry's migration to chemical self-abortion is deeply disturbing as it carries with it the possibility of increasing the overall abortion rate over time and also carries with it a higher rate of injury, about which women are often under-informed or deceived."
Despite Guttmacher's former connection to the country's leading abortion provider, both pro-life and pro-choice organizations cite its statistics as the most reliable. Guttmacher -- which conducts its study about every three years -- collected data this time from 59 percent of all facilities it believes perform abortions and supplemented it with health department information on 19 percent of the clinics. It made estimates for 20 percent, Guttmacher reported.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collects yearly information on abortion, but its statistics are incomplete. States are not required to report information on abortion to the CDC, and three -- California, Maryland and New Hampshire -- have not provided data to the CDC for at least eight years.
The CDC reported in November 2018 the total, rate and ratio of abortions in 2015 -- the latest year for which statistics are available -- all declined by 2 percent from 2014. The ratio and rate reached their lowest points since the Roe ruling in 1973, while that year was the only one since the Supreme Court decision with fewer abortions than in 2015, according to the CDC.
As in Guttmacher's new research, the CDC's latest report showed a dramatic increase in the use of non-surgical abortion methods. The use of chemical abortion in the first eight weeks of gestation rose from 11.3 percent in 2006 to 24.2 percent in 2015, according to the CDC.
The fifth annual Evangelicals for Life conference, which will be hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, will address abortion and pro-life ministry work Jan. 23-24 at McLean Bible Church in Vienna, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.