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The Dropping Abortion Rate

Today’s Washington Post includes a story about a major shift in abortion demographics during the past 30 years. The lede of the story is this:

The face of women who have abortions has shifted significantly in the past 30 years, with relatively fewer white childless teenagers and more mothers of color in their 20s and 30s opting to terminate their pregnancies, according to a report being released today. In the first comprehensive analysis since 1974 of demographic characteristics of women who have abortions, researchers found that the overall drop in the abortion rate has been marked by a dramatic shift, declining more among white women and teenagers than among black and Hispanic and older women.

But as you continue to read, you’ll find this:

The analysis confirmed previous reports that the abortion rate fell to the lowest level since 1974, dropping 33 percent from a peak of 29 abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 in 1980 to 20 per 1,000 in 2004. [emphasis added]

From 1974-1989, the abortion rate increased 39 percent; from 1989-2004, it decreased 26 percent. In addition, while large disparities exist, with Hispanic and black women having the procedure at rates three to five times the rate of white women, abortion rates have declined among all racial and ethnic groups.

As my Ethics and Public Policy center colleague Yuval Levin and I discussed in our essay in the December 2007 issue of COMMENTARY, “Crime, Drugs, Welfare-and Other Good News,” the decrease in abortion seems to have been influenced less by policy than by the changing terms of public debate and by increasingly responsible attitudes among the young. Pro-life spokesmen changed their rhetorical tactics and began to choose their fights more carefully (for example, the partial-birth abortion debate colored the abortion debate throughout much of the 1990s and, in the process, created greater sympathy for a moderately pro-life position). Other factors played a role as well, including the efforts of pro-life groups to assist women with unwanted pregnancies, the greater availability of birth control, and advances in our scientific understanding of fetal development. Contributing to the re-thinking was the more widespread use of sonogram technology, which enables would-be parents to see the developing child and its human form at the very early stages. “All in all,” Yuval and I concluded, “not only has the public discussion of abortion been profoundly transformed, but younger Americans seem to have moved the farthest.”

This is, in other words, a tremendous social success story and part of the moral “re-norming” of America that has taken place during the last 15 years. That is, in every respect, a good thing, and an enormous tribute to those who have continued to fight for the life of unborn children even when it was unfashionable and when many people were pessimistic that progress could be made.



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