WASHINGTON - The number of abortions being performed in the United States has dropped to 1.2 million a year - the lowest level since 1976, according to a new report.
The drop was driven by a decline in the overall rate at which women of childbearing age are getting abortions, which fell about 9 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to a nationwide survey. At the same time, the long decline in the number of abortion providers appears to be stabilizing, at least in part because of the availability of the controversial abortion pill RU 486, the report found.
The report did not identify reasons for the drop in abortions, but the researchers said it could be a combination of factors.
"It could be more women using contraception and not having as many unintended pregnancies. It could be more restrictions on abortions, making it more difficult for women to obtain abortion services. It could be a combination of these and other dynamics," said Rachel Jones of the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive-health research organization publishing the report in the March issue of the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
Whatever the reasons, the trend was welcomed by both antiabortion and abortion rights advocates.
"This study shows that prevention works, and that's what we provide in our health centers every day," said Cecile Richard of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "At the end of the day, Americans of all stripes believe that we need to do more to prevent unintended pregnancy and make healthcare affordable and accessible."
"It's still a massive number, but it's moving in the right direction," said Randall O'Bannon of the National Right to Life Committee. He said that at least some of the drop may reflect changing attitudes.
"Even look at Hollywood," said O'Bannon, citing the hit movie, "Juno," about a pregnant teenager who decides against abortion. "More and more people are starting to reconsider their positions."
Suzanne Poppema of Physicians for Reproductive Health and Choice speculated that wider availability of the so-called morning-after pill also might be playing a role.
"I would like to say that it's at least partially due to increased availability of emergency contraception, which is a really good addition to reproductive healthcare in this country," Poppema said. The emergency contraceptive, a high dose of standard birth control pills, can prevent pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of having unprotected sex.
The report was based on a survey of all known abortion providers the Guttmacher Institute has been conducting regularly since 1974, and is considered one of the most authoritative sources of data on abortions in the United States. The latest survey, of 1,787 providers, was conducted in 2005 and was the first since 2000.
The total number of abortions among women ages 15 to 44 declined from 1.3 million in 2000 to 1.2 million in 2005, an 8 percent drop that continued a trend that began in 1990, when the number of abortions peaked at more than 1.6 million, the survey found. The last time the number of abortions was that low was 1976, when slightly fewer than 1.2 million were performed.
The abortion rate fell from 21.3 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 2000 to 19.4 in 2005, a 9 percent decline. That's the lowest since 1974, when the rate was 19.3, and far below the 1981 peak of 29.3.
The abortion rate varies widely around the country, tending to be higher in the Northeast and lower in the South and Midwest.
The fall occurred amid a continued decline in the number of abortion providers. It slipped 2 percent since the last survey, but that drop was much smaller than in previous years.
Jones noted the introduction of the French abortion pill RU 486, now more commonly known as mifepristone. The drug, which was approved in 2000, allows women to terminate their pregnancies without the need for a surgical procedure.
"We found that there were providers who previously didn't offer surgical abortions and are now only providing early medical abortions," Jones said. "If it wasn't for those providers, the number of providers would have declined by far more."
By 2005, 57 percent of abortion providers were offering the drug, accounting for 13 percent of abortions, the report found.
That trend was disturbing to O'Bannon of the National Right to Life Committee, who questioned the safety of the drug. "It disturbs me that there are clinics that may not have been doing abortions before and are doing them now and that there are doctors who may not have been doing abortions before but are now," he said.
But advocates were encouraged by the increased availability of mifepristone, which they said has been shown to be both highly effective and safe.
"One of the objections to the abortion pill was that it was going to cause the abortion rate to go sky high. But this shows that didn't happen," Poppema said.
Nevertheless, 87 percent of US counties, accounting for 35 percent of women ages 15 to 44, do not have an abortion provider, the report found.
"We remain alarmed that, 35 years after Roe v. Wade, so many abortion providers continue to be out of reach to many American women, especially those in rural and underserved communities," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, an abortion rights organization.