Mainstream Media Misses The Story Behind U.S. Abortion Decline

Mainstream Media Misses The Story Behind U.S. Abortion Decline

Increases in contraception use are, at best, an incomplete explanation for the significant long-term decline in the abortion rate, despite the media's reporting on new abortion numbers.
Michael J. New
By

Last Tuesday, the Guttmacher Institute released updated U.S. abortion data for 2017 showing that America’s abortion decline continues. Overall, the U.S. abortion rate fell by approximately 20 percent between 2011 and 2017. Furthermore, the decline was widespread, with 45 of 50 U.S. states reporting declining rates.

Considering the salience of abortion as a public policy issue this year, it is unsurprising that Guttmacher’s new data received a great deal of media coverage. On Wednesday morning, the five U.S. newspapers with the largest online circulation, USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, all ran stories about America’s ongoing abortion decline.

However, the mainstream media’s reporting on this new data left a great deal to be desired. Of these five newspapers, only one provided any quotes from a pro-lifer. The New York Times did include some commentary by Clarke Forsythe, senior counsel of Americans United for Life. Other prominent media outlets including The Hill and CNN also covered Guttmacher’s new abortion data without publishing any analysis from pro-lifers.

Instead, the mainstream media, with very few exceptions, uncritically reported Guttmacher’s analysis of the declining abortion numbers. Unsurprisingly, Guttmacher argued that the recent abortion decline had little to do with pro-life laws or reductions in sexual activity — and was instead largely due to greater use of contraceptives.

The Flaws in Guttmacher’s Analysis

Of course, Guttmacher’s analysis of the new data is largely superficial. It compares the 32 U.S. states that recently enacted pro-life laws to the 18 states that did not enact pro-life legislation. It found the fraction of states in each group that experienced abortion rate declines was relatively similar. Guttmacher pays little attention, however, to the types of pro-life laws that were being enacted.

Furthermore, Guttmacher dismisses research that shows a decline in sexual activity, despite the fact that the Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Survey of Family Growth both show long-term declines in percentage of teens who have been sexually active. Most importantly, Guttmacher only considers the change in the U.S. abortion rate from 2011 to 2017. Six years is a relatively short time with which to properly analyze changes in demographics, behavior, or public policy.

Instead, when analyzing America’s long-term abortion rate decline, a different picture emerges. In the United States, the abortion rate increased sharply after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The U.S. abortion rate peaked in 1980, however, and has been declining fairly steadily ever since. Overall, between 1980 and 2017, the U.S. abortion rate has fallen by more than 53 percent.

Interestingly, during this time period, the unintended pregnancy rate in the United States has fluctuated. In fact, Guttmacher’s own data shows that the U.S. unintended pregnancy rate actually increased between 2001 and 2008 — a timespan during which the abortion rate continued to decline. As such, increases in contraception use are, at best, an incomplete explanation for the significant long-term decline in the abortion rate.

A far better explanation for the long-term decline in this country’s abortion rate is that a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term. Guttmacher’s own data shows that in 1981, almost 54 percent of unintended pregnancies resulted in an abortion. That number fell to 42 percent in 2011. Mainstream media outlets that have covered America’s abortion decline have almost completely overlooked this fact.

The Efficacy of Pro-Life Activism

Indeed, the fact that a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term shows pro-life efforts have been effective. If more women are choosing life for their unborn children, pro-lifers are either 1) changing hearts and minds, 2) providing assistance to pregnant women, or 3) passing protective pro-life laws. Pro-lifers have enjoyed success in each of these activities during the past 30 years.

Indeed, since 1995, Gallup surveys show a significant increase in the percentage of individuals identifying as “pro-life.” According to Gallup, in 1995 only 33 percent of Americans identified as “pro-life.” But the most recent Gallup poll taken in July 2019 found that 49 percent of Americans say they are “pro-life” — a plurality.

Additionally, data from the General Social Survey shows increasing opposition to abortion among young adults. Heartbeat International’s data shows that the number of organizations offering assistance to pregnant women increased by 86 percent between 1988 and 2015.

Finally, there has been a significant increase in the number of state-level pro-life laws enacted since the early 1990s. Furthermore, a body of academic research shows a range of pro-life laws, including public funding limits, parental involvement laws, and properly designed informed consent laws all reduce abortion rates.

This year, abortion has been an exceptionally salient policy issue. Efforts in liberal states to legalize abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy and efforts in conservative states to enact legal protections for the unborn have galvanized activists on both sides of the debate. Furthermore, the confirmations of both Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court have increased the likelihood that the court will uphold legislation that would protect the preborn. As such, accurate analysis of abortion trends has the potential to inform this debate.

Good analysis might provide insights about policy strategies that are most effective at protecting preborn children, so it is unfortunate that when new abortion data was released, a vast majority of mainstream media outlets simply chose to parrot the claims of a pro-abortion advocacy group. Their unwillingness to provide balanced commentary and analysis does a real disservice to everyone involved with this debate.

Michael J. New is a visiting assistant professor at the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New.

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