Back to the 60’s

One of the things that rarely gets talked about is how many social issues have dramatically improved over the last 20-30 years. Crime, for example, has plunged to rates not seen since the 1960’s. Teen pregnancy rates are down to the lowest levels since we started measuring. Drug use rates are steady or down.

Oh, and something else is way down: abortion:

The abortion rate in the United States dropped to its lowest point since the Supreme Court legalized the procedure in all 50 states, according to a study suggesting that new, long-acting contraceptive methods are having a significant impact in reducing unwanted pregnancies.

There were fewer than 17 abortions for every 1,000 women in 2011, the latest year for which figures were available, according a paper published Monday from the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights think tank. That is down 13 percent from 2008 and a little higher than the rate in 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

The abortion rate is now down to almost half of what it was in the early 80’s, when it peaked. And it’s not just Guttmacher. CDC measured the abortion rate even lower, at 14.5 per thousand.

Despite the first paragraph, the study did not actually look at the reasons why the abortion rate has fallen. Guttmacher is claiming that it is because of better sex education and contraception availability (particularly the IUD). While these have certainly played a role, I am dubious that they can explain the entire drop or even most of it. Teen pregnancies have plunged and unintended pregnancies are down a bit, but the live birth rate has been steady for the last 40 years and the unintended pregnancy rate hasn’t fallen nearly as much as the abortion rate has. So while it’s true that a large portion can be attributed to fewer women getting pregnant (both from birth control and from teenagers waiting longer than before to have sex) it’s also true, as conservative groups are arguing, that fewer women are choosing to have an abortion.

Why fewer are choosing to have an abortion is debatable. I would guess that restrictions on abortion are playing a role (waiting periods, in particular). But most of the plunge happened before the recent wave of laws took effect. I would guess that a declining social stigma against out-of-wedlock birth is playing a role, since that’s the one social ill. I would have guessed that increasing wealth was playing a role, but the abortion rate has continued to fall through the recession. I think it’s also possible, as some of the pro-life groups are arguing, that the ability to get sonograms and heartbeats at earlier and earlier gestational periods is causing women to rethink.

No matter how many times I turn this over, however, I can not find a government policy to credit for it. In the end, I think that society has changed, in one way or many ways, such that fewer abortions are happening. And no matter where you fall on the abortion issue, I think we can all agree that 700,000 fewer abortions every year is a good thing.

However it is has happened, it is interesting that our society has reduced its abortion rate down to where it was when abortion was still largely illegal. We are seeing that social change can be just as effective, if not more effective, than law when it comes to advancing a moral cause. This is a lesson worth savoring the next time someone come around with a crusade.

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  1. Seattle Outcast

    I’d put forth the idea that many of the people that would have been born that would have later have had abortions, were themselves aborted. It’s a follow on to the idea that the crime rate went down due to abortion; those people in the socio-economic group that perpetuates the type of behavior that leads to unwanted pregnancies aren’t having as many kids to carry on their behavior patterns.

    Idiocracy has been pushed back another generation.

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  2. Seattle Outcast

    It’s amazing how the whole “get married, then have babies” thing is so reversed by social groups.

    When I was younger and lived in a very blue collar town (lumber mills and more lumber mills) the girls just dropped out kids whenever they got a new boyfriend, and most of them didn’t get married until they’d already lived with three of four different guys and broken up with them.

    In Seattle, out in the suburbs of full of six-figure incomes, the situation is exactly reversed. While people may live together (sometimes for well over a decade), babies come after getting married. And usually only 1 to 3 of them (they’ll have more pets than kids).

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  3. hist_ed

    SO, I’m in Kirkland and every single married person I know in my age group (forties) has two kids. People I went to high school with, my wife’s high school buddies. As a teacher I see that as the norm for most families in my area too (big exceptions: Mormons and some immigrants). I have four kids and some people are amazed at how we do it (just doing my part for social security’s demographic problem).

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  4. ilovecress

    **I have four kids and some people are amazed at how we do it**

    I am one of those people. You must have the patience of a saint, the constitution an ox, and the sleep habits of Thatcher.

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  5. hist_ed

    “I am one of those people. You must have the patience of a saint, the constitution an ox, and the sleep habits of Thatcher.”
    Alas, no. Being a member of the “Go outside and play until dinner” school of parenting helps (often while Daddy has a talk with his buddy Jim Beam). And my wife is the saint-staying married to me is proof enough of that (“No honey, peeing in Bob and Erin’s potted plants is not a funny joke, maybe it’s time to go home.”)

    “I’m amazed that you still do it.” ugh, yeah, ummm, best not to mention . . . grrrrrr where’s the damn hand lotion . . . .

    “Damn Mormons.” Atheists, though taking a serious look at FSM.

    And, uh, wasn’t trying to brag. Just that when I was growing up families with four or more kids were pretty common. Now family size seems to have standardized.

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  6. Mook

    The destruction of the American family is fully underway……

    The spike in violent crime in the 60’s coincided with the spike of out of wedlock births, another fact which is “rarely talked about”. Technological advances in medical care explain at least part of the drop in murder rates, as a larger percentage of victims are able to survive violent attacks as a result of superior medical care today as compared to decades ago.

    Technology advances have also helped. Increased use of cell phones and cameras has contributed to both prevention/deterrence and higher probability of conviction of criminals. Incarceration rates are higher today than in decades past. Gated communities are much more commonplace today than 30 – 40 yrs ago, and CCW rates are much higher. I wish the lowered crime rates and slightly lower abortion rates could be attributed to a better society, but there are many other factors affecting crime rates.

    I grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood and kids on my block played and rode our bikes all over the neighborhood without a problem. Today I live in what would probably be considered an upper middle class neighborhood and the kids here almost all keep close to home, even though crime in this area is rare. Hard to believe that shift in behavior was all due to “perception” rather than reality.

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  7. Section8

    Today I live in what would probably be considered an upper middle class neighborhood and the kids here almost all keep close to home, even though crime in this area is rare.

    Mook I agree with many of your points regarding factors in the lower crime statistics, but as far as kids not playing like they did when we were younger, it’s because we’re turning into a nation of pussies. Parents are just over cautious on everything, and I think the everyone is a victim mentality that has spread throughout this nation is largely to blame. If a kid gets a scratch at school parents complain to the principal like it’s a major trauma injury. It’s just gotten ridiculous.

    As for the abortion rates, I’m thinking it might be due to guys getting better at pulling out faster, but I have no data to back that up. I know I’ve improved over the years.

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