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Why Has the Abortion Rate Dropped So Much?

Photograph by Twenty20

The number of abortions performed in the U.S. is declining.

According to a new report from the (decidedly pro-choice) Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions in 2014 came in at 14.6 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44. That's the lowest rate since 1973, which is when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

Several things factor into the drop in numbers. The biggest reason, experts say, is expanded access to birth control.

While the rate of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion has remained steady, the president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, told NPR the rate of unintended pregnancies—historically low among teens—is also going down, thanks to easily available contraception.

"It shows that we're finally doing a better job of helping women get access to birth control that's affordable and that's high-quality," Richards said.

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There's another reason being attributed to the decline in abortions, which some, although definitely not all, celebrate: the more "punitive" restrictions many states have put in place over the past several years.

“Abortion restrictions and clinic closures mean that patients may need to travel greater distances to access services,” Rachel Jones, the lead author of the Guttmacher study, said. “The majority of abortion patients—75 percent—are poor or low-income, and nearly two-thirds are already parents. It can be very difficult for them to arrange for time off from work, transportation and childcare. While many find ways to access care despite these obstacles, the decline in the abortion rate is also partially attributable to women who were prevented from accessing needed services.”

The study found 90 percent of all counties in the United States had no clinics that offer abortions, which is a major factor in forcing women to "carry unwanted pregnancies to term," according to Megan Donovan of Guttmacher.

'We should focus on increasing access to the full range of contraceptive methods, as well as to abortion services.'

In general, though, the principal research scientist for Guttmacher said devices like IUDs, which provide long-acting protection against pregnancy, are the real heroes. After all, despite decreased access to abortion services, birth rates have not increased as the number of abortions have declined.

Which means required coverage for birth control in the Affordable Care Act, as well as continued services through Planned Parenthood and other women's health service clinics, are providing the necessary safety net for American women during their reproductive years.

"We should focus on increasing access to the full range of contraceptive methods, as well as to abortion services," Donovan said. "Empowering women to prevent unintended pregnancies and plan their families is both a human rights priority and smart public health policy.”

That policy is up in the air as the new Trump adminstration comes in. Republicans in Congress have already set the stage to roll back the ACA and cut federal funds, which Planned Parenthood counts on—despite no federal dollars being used for abortion services.

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As legislators work to shut down Planned Parenthood, thereby limiting the screening and treatment services, birth control access and pre-natal care, this window of broad women's health services may be closing.

Meaning, this historically low number of abortions may not last for long.

"We shouldn't go backwards on access to birth control," Richards told NPR.

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