Despite claims that contraception is responsible for record-low abortion rates in the U.S., one researcher says pro-life laws and a growing 'culture of life' could be playing a significant role.

"It is unlikely contraceptive use has anything to do with the decline," said Michael New, research associate for the Reproductive Research Audit.

Attributing the abortion decline to contraception, he argued, fails to take into account other statistics on birth control and unintended pregnancy, as well as changes in public opinion and the effects of pro-life legislation in recent years.

While the "data is far from perfect," New told CNA Feb. 3, the organization behind the study does "acknowledge that some pro-life laws and clinic closures contributed" to declining abortion rates.

In addition, he said, numerous national studies on attitudes toward abortion show more clearly that pro-life "efforts to change the hearts and minds of Americans may be making a difference."

New responded to a Feb. 3 report by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive research organization formerly affiliated with Planned Parenthood. The report found that in 2011, there were 16.9 abortions per 1,000 U.S. women between the ages of 15 and 44.

This marks a 13 percent decrease from 2008, bringing the abortion rate to its lowest since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion throughout the U.S. The current abortion rate reflects a drastic reduction from 1981's peak of 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women.

The Midwest experienced a 17 percent decrease in abortion from 2008 to 2011, the largest decline during that time period. The Northeast witnessed the smallest abortion decrease, with a 9 percent drop.

The study's lead author, Rachel Jones, said that state-level abortion regulations are unlikely to be the cause of declining abortion, because many of them were implemented late in 2011.

Rather, she suggested that improvements in contraceptive use were responsible for the abortion decline, which "coincided with a steep national drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates."

However, New contested this claim, arguing that other studies indicate little change in contraceptive use in recent years. In addition, he said, "Guttmacher's own studies show that the unintended pregnancy rate has remained about the same – and may be increasing slightly."

The largest problem with the author's statements, New said, is that she "totally disregards changes in public opinion" in explaining the decline in abortion.

Since the early 1990s, he explained, the decline in abortion rate has been largest in regions "with the greatest increase in pro-life sentiment," such as the South and Midwest.
Furthermore, he added, "six of the nine Gallup polls taken since May 2009 show that Americans are more likely to consider themselves 'pro-life' rather than 'pro-choice.'"

Leaders of pro-life organizations echoed New's comments and critiques.

Dr. Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of Americans United for Life, noted in a Feb. 3 statement that it "is impossible really to know the true abortion rate" because abortion doctors are not required to report on the abortions they perform.

She criticized the suggestion that pro-life laws have not impacted abortion rates. According to Guttmacher, more than 100 pro-life laws were enacted at the state level from 2008 to 2011.

"The truth is that these common-sense limits on abortion protect women and their unborn children from abortion industry abuses," Yoest said, adding that "no matter how many abortions there are, abortion carries serious risks for both mother and unborn child," and therefore warrants stricter regulations.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, praised efforts aimed at "educating Americans about the reality of abortion, steadily changing hearts and minds."

"The debates going on in the states and on the federal level to protect babies after 20 weeks, ban sex-selection, stop taxpayer funding of abortion, and more, are evidence themselves that our arguments are convincing," Dannenfelser said.

"Guttmacher's new report is another indication that our nation is indeed growing weary of the destruction wrought by legalized abortion on demand."