The number of abortions in the United States has reached a record low, falling to the lowest level since the Centers for Disease Control began keeping track in 1976, according to new data released this past week.
Women's health advocates said the downward trend is proof that good information about contraceptives and access to birth control is vital to helping decrease unintended pregnancies, but warned that the number of abortions could go back up if states continue to enact legislation that cuts funding to reproductive health clinics like Planned Parenthood.
About 18 percent of pregnancies resulted in abortions in 2010, the most recent year with available data. The drop in the number of abortions went along with an overall decrease in pregnancies and births during the same period. The data has implications for public health policy in that it reinforces the importance of helping women choose when they will get pregnant, advocates said.
"Right now what we're seeing is that more people are having intended pregnancies and fewer people are having unintended pregnancies," said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that advocates for improved sexual and reproductive health.
Alina Salganicoff, director of Women's Health Policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said reduced number abortions shows that fewer unintended pregnancies are occurring.
"The research shows that when pregnancies are planned, the outcomes tend to be better," Salganicoff said, citing better prenatal care and higher breastfeeding rates as two benefits. "So it is welcome to see a reduction in unplanned, mistimed, or unintended pregnancies."
'The research shows that when pregnancies are planned, the outcomes tend to be better.'
Several types of highly-effective contraception, including the patch, the ring, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) all became more widely available during the time period of the study, according to Kathryn Kost, a co-author of the report, who said that decreases in abortions accelerated between 2006 and 2010.
"While we don't know all the factors contributing to this decrease overall, we do know that during the same period there was an increase in long-acting reversible methods of contraception, like IUDs and implants," she said.
Changes to insurance laws that required insurers to pay for more expensive contraceptives and help cover copay costs allowed more women get access to better contraceptives, said Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network.
The decline in abortions was also likely connected to the 2008 recession, according to Nash and Pearson. Women tend to be more careful about contraceptive use and less likely to become pregnant during an economic downturn, Nash said. That careful thinking about the costs of raising a child can linger well after a recession, having a longer-term effect on pregnancy rates.
While the levels of abortion dropped significantly in the overall population, the decreases were smaller for Hispanic and African American women, the study found. Kost said that disparity was found among groups who had less access to information and resources.
Watch the VICE News documentary The Fake Abortion Clinics Of America: Misconception:
Nash explained that the data shows how states might be able to make policy changes to further bring down the rates of abortion and unintended pregnancies among those groups. They can increase the amount of money devoted to family planning, including for clinics and for Medicaid, which can help cover the cost of the more expensive and more effective methods of birth control like IUDs. But many states have cut these funds in recent years, she said.
"Women trust and respect family planning clinics, including Planned Parenthood, and these clinics serve an important role in the safety net. When they close or disappear, women do not have access to those services at other clinics. It's important to maintain the safety net," she said.
An increase in sex education that focuses on a more robust version of relationships and sex, including healthy relationships, peer pressure, consent, and family planning, can go a long way in helping to reduce unintended pregnancies, Nash said. But, she added, the education has to be "culturally competent."
Increasing access to information about contraceptives at clinics, pharmacies, schools, and community colleges are all ways to further reduce abortions, Salganicoff said.
Nash warned that if that access to birth control is cut off, the rate of unintended pregnancies could go back up, Nash said.
"The point is to have pregnancies that have healthy outcomes and are pregnancies that are well-timed and desired, which improves outcomes for women and infants," she said. "To the extent that that's growing, that's positive."
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen