State abortion rates were dropping even before the recent surge in restrictions

State abortion laws. (Source: Guttmacher Institute)
State abortion laws (Guttmacher Institute)

Abortion rates were dropping in nearly every state even before many began passing huge numbers of abortion restrictions in recent years, a new report finds.

From 2011 through 2013, states enacted 205 abortion restrictions, more than had been enacted in the entire first decade of the 2000′s. But in the few years preceding that policy surge, nearly every state saw a decline in abortion rates, according to the report from the Guttmacher Institute, which is focused on advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Nationally, there were about 1.06 million abortions in 2011, a 13 percent decline from 2008. By 2011, the rate of abortions among women ages 15 to 44 was 16.9 for every thousand, the lowest such rate since 1973.


National abortion rates per thousand women aged 15 to 44. (Source: Guttmacher Institute/Washington Post)

Nearly every state saw a decline from 2008 to 2011

All but six states — Alaska, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, West Virginia and Wyoming — saw declines in their abortion rates between 2008 and 2011.

New York, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware and New Jersey were home to the highest abortion rates, at 27 to 34 abortions per thousand women. Wyoming, Mississippi, South Dakota, Kentucky and Missouri had the lowest, at one to five per thousand. But it’s important to note that those numbers only represent the state where it took place. In Wyoming, for example, more than 90 percent of abortion patients in 2009 went out of state for their operation, according to Guttmacher.

Rates were highest in the Northeast (25 abortions per thousand women), followed by the West (19), South (15) and Midwest (12).

State-passed abortion restrictions may not explain the declines

It’s unclear what’s driving the broad declines in abortion rates, but the report’s authors concluded that it’s unlikely that new restrictions are behind it.

While many states that did pass abortion restrictions from 2008 to 2011 saw declines in their abortion rates, many were relatively minor changes that wouldn’t have a measurable impact. And they found that most of those new restrictions were passed in the South and Midwest, but rates fell in the West and Northeast, too: 

It is crucial to note that abortion rates decreased by larger-than-average amounts in several states that did not implement any new restrictions between 2008 and 2010, such as Illinois (18%) and Oregon (15%). So, even in states like Louisiana and Missouri, we cannot assume that the new restrictions were responsible for the decline in abortion incidence.

Looking at recent trends, the authors conclude that the declines may be driven by younger women using more contraception and using it more effectively.

The economy may have played a role, too. Couples may have postponed the decision to have kids,  and serious economic uncertainty may have driven couples to use contraceptives more consistently. (The more devastating a surprise pregnancy, the less likely a couple may be to slip up, the report’s authors argue.) And studies have also shown that fertility rates dropped as unemployment rose during the Great Recession.

Local access to abortions is scarce for many women

In 27 states, more than half of women don’t have a clinic in their home county. In six states — South Dakota, Arkansas, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi and Wyoming — more than three in four women live in counties without clinics.

Nationally, 1,720 providers performed at least one abortion in 2011. Just more than one in three performed fewer than 30 abortions, but the majority performed 1,000 or more.

The number of providers nationally dropped 4 percent from 2008 to 2011. Nine states and D.C. saw an increase in providers, while 21 states saw declines. The remaining 20 saw no change.

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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