Why Is the Abortion Rate Falling?

Ironically, the socially conservative pro-life movement has made its peace with unwed parenthood as an alternative to abortion.

Delores Leonard, a single mother in Chicago, walks her children Emmarie and Erin to school. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Abortion is becoming ever rarer in the United States. On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its latest survey of abortion in the United States. The CDC tallied 730,322 abortions in 2011, the smallest number in almost 40 years. CDC’s numbers are probably an under-count. Other surveys suggest that the number for 2011 was slightly larger than 1 million. But if the precise number of abortions is uncertain, the trend is not. The incidence of abortion in the United States sharply rose in the 1970s and 1980s, reached a peak in 1990, and has tumbled by nearly half over the past two decades.

The Declining Abortion Rate
Guttmacher Institute

Looking at the chart, you might imagine that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that asserted a constitutional right to abortion, had already been overturned.

Why is this happening?

Some conjecture that improved access to and use of birth control may be the reason, but there’s scant evidence for this. At any given moment nearly 40 percent of women are using no birth-control method at all. Almost half of all American pregnancies are unintended.

Abortion rates are declining because more and more of these unintended pregnancies are being carried to term. Again, some conjecture that women are deciding to carry their unintended pregnancies because they are denied access to abortion. There isn’t much evidence for this proposition either. While access to abortion has been curtailed by conservative state legislatures since the 2010 election, most of the decline in abortion incidence occurred much earlier. Even post-2010, abortion remains readily available in all major U.S. population centers. Although there are abortion clinics in only 11 percent of U.S. counties, those counties are home to 62 percent of American women, and many of the remaining women live in counties adjoining those in which clinics are found. There is not a single state—not Mississippi, not South Carolina, not Wyoming—that has no abortion clinic at all.

So if not birth control and not lack of access, what does explain it?

This chart offers a clue:

Births to Unmarried Women, 1940-2007
CDC/NCHS, National Vital Statistics System

When marriage was the near-universal norm in American society, a pregnancy out of wedlock pushed a couple toward one of four choices: shotgun wedding; adoption; abortion; or single motherhood, in that order of social acceptability. The result was a society in which both abortion and single motherhood were rare.

In the decade after 1965, both women and men claimed greater sexual autonomy for themselves. The shotgun marriage seemed an increasingly outrageous imposition to meet increasingly irrelevant social expectations. After 1970, adoption of native-born American children by non-related parents rapidly dwindled. Yet outright single motherhood remained comparatively unusual for middle-class Americans, and especially for white middle-class Americans.

The abortion spike between 1975 and 1990 reflected a new ranking of acceptable responses to an unmarried pregnancy: abortion, single parenthood, shotgun wedding, and adoption, in that order.

Since 1990, two other things seem to have changed. First, the pro-life movement really does seem to have changed American minds about the morality of abortion. Only about one-fifth of Americans wish to see abortion outlawed—a proportion that has remained steady since the mid-1970s. But the proportion that thinks abortion is wrong has edged up over the past 15 years: Only 38 percent of Americans now describe abortion as “morally acceptable.”

Meanwhile, marriage has receded further from the cultural experience of the less affluent two-thirds of American society. As the wages of non-college-educated men have tumbled, marriage has looked like an increasingly pointless and even dangerous choice for poorer women. As marriage fades, unwed motherhood has evolved from an acceptable outcome to something close to an inevitability. The order of choices in the face of an unexpected pregnancy has thus shifted again: single parenthood, abortion, shotgun wedding, and adoption.

Women who already have one or two children outside marriage may continue to choose abortion as a way to avoid a third or fourth. As the Guttmacher Institute notes, 61 percent of women who have abortions are already mothers. But the urgency of having an abortion to terminate a first pregnancy has clearly faded, as single parenthood has become the norm for non-affluent Americans of all races.

This is the fascinating irony of the pro-life movement. The cause originated as a profoundly socially conservative movement. Yet as it grew, it became less sectarian. Women came to the fore as leaders. It found a new language of concern and compassion, rather than condemnation and control. Most radically and decisively, the movement made its peace with unwed parenthood as the inescapable real-world alternative to abortion.

In their much-discussed book, Red Families v. Blue Families, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone discuss a “Bristol Palin effect”: a legitimation of single parenthood among anti-abortion Americans. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a strong critic of both abortion and single parenthood, objected to Cahn’s and Carbone’s insinuation that abortion somehow stabilizes two-parent families.

Douthat has a point that it is not abortion access that is stabilizing the upper-income, educated, family. The two-parent families of upper-class America don’t have much contact with abortion at all. Only about 15 percent of the women who seek abortion are married. Nor do upper-income families often drive their daughters to abortion clinics to cut short unwanted pregnancies. Teen pregnancy rates have declined since the 1990s, and 70 percent of the women seeking abortion have incomes of less than 200 percent the poverty rate. But as even Douthat would concede, in the poorer and less-educated two-thirds of America more qualms about abortion have predictably led to more births outside marriage. Despite its conservative origins, the pro-life movement as now constituted has ceased to be socially conservative in its effects. The single-minded focus on the value of motherhood, regardless of one’s personal circumstances, unwittingly shifted focus away from the debate over marriage.

Conservatives still upheld marriage, of course, but they ceased to think creatively about how to promote it, other than by stopping same-sex marriage—a fight that was lost and that almost certainly would not have made a difference even had it somehow been won. When conservatives have spoken about child-rearing in marriage, they have done so moralistically, in ways that condemn the choices of the large majority of American parents without much understanding of why those choices were made in the first place.

Conservatives need a new agenda: one that emphasizes the life chances of children—and that appreciates that marriage is at least as much an economic institution as a cultural one. Instead of scolding, which is unlikely to work, we need policy experimentation: Will wage subsidies help? How about mother’s allowances? As is, Americans are well on their way to a society where not only is abortion safe, legal, and rare—but so is married childrearing.