A new study shows that the abortion rate is at its lowest point since 1973, a trend that both sides of the abortion debate are citing as evidence that their approach to the issue is working.
Abortion opponents are pointing to a slew of measures across the country that have restricted abortion access, including mandating sonograms before the procedure and banning abortions after 20 weeks. Data suggest that abortion rates were actually dropping before some of the restrictions were put in place.
Abortion rights activists say women are taking greater advantage of birth control. They argue it’s important that women still have the rights to make choices about their reproductive health with their doctors and their families.
The study didn’t give reasons for the new finding–17 abortions for every 1,000 women in 2011, a 13 percent drop since 2008–but suggested that the economic downturn and better use of contraception are possible factors.
But what exactly do these numbers mean for the political conversation around abortion?
Abortion opponents actually see something of an opening when it comes to this issue, even though some conservatives question the report’s accuracy.
Mercedes Schlapp, a Republican strategist, says that she expects that 2014 candidates will look at the report and see validation for their efforts at restricting access to abortion. “Pro-life is becoming popular,” said Schlapp.
She believes candidates have little to fear in supporting bans on abortions after 20 weeks. Several states have passed such laws, although recently the courts declared that law unconstitutional in Arizona
“Approaching it with the 20-week ban is a smart approach politically, because the public is in agreement that there should be a 20-week ban. Even the pro-choice voters want restrictions,” Schlapp said, referring to polls that show majorities of those surveyed supportive such measures. “It cost us seats in 2012, but Republicans are ready for the midterm elections, where they can drive the message and say they are coming to it with a reasonable approach.”
The Republican National Committee made a point at its winter meeting of essentially leading with abortion, delaying the start of its session so that members could participate in the annual pro-life march. Members also signed a “Resolution on Republican Pro-Life Strategy,” which called on candidates to be vocal about their stance on abortion. Part of the language from the resolution states:
Staying silent fails because this strategy allows Democrats to define the Republican brand and prevents the Republican Party from taking advantage of widely supported pro-life positions listed above to attract traditional and new values voter.
Democrats, who in 2012 accused Republicans of a “war on women,” have watched with glee as people like Mike Huckabee, a possible 2016 presidential contender, have made comments that critics say show Republicans are out of step with women. Huckabee, speaking at last month’s winter meeting, said that Democrats insult women by “making them believe that they are helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing for them a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system” without government assistance.
“This debate will continue to rage because Republicans will continue to make an issue. It will be an issue in 2014 midterms, but it’s not an issue that helps Republicans, just ask Mike Huckabee,” said Maria Cardona, a Democratic strategist. “I think if you are somebody like Kay Hagan or any other red state Democrat, you don’t need to bring it up, unless your opponent is a man and they want to bring it up from a social perspective. But still, it is not a winner for them.”
In North Carolina, where Hagan (D) is up for re-election for her Senate seat, abortion will likely be a hot topic as that state recently passed increased regulations on abortion clinics and providers. Hagan opposed a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks.
Cardona said that the report supported the progressive approach. Democrats could argue that it justifies the inclusion of contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act.
“Making sure abortion and contraception are accessible and safe will make sure the rate keeps going down,” she said.
Yet, to some, abortion isn’t top of mind for voters on either side of the debate.
“I hope that everyone can agree, no matter your stand on the issue, fewer abortions is a good thing – but I don’t think abortion is a number one voting issue for the majority of women,” said Ashley O’Connor, of Burning Glass Consulting, a Republican firm. “On a day to day basis, women spend more time worrying about health care premiums, rising deductibles and if they can keep their doctors.”