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.