A new study from the Guttmacher Institute reports that national abortion rates remained steady between 2005 and 2008 after more than a decade-long decline that saw numbers far lower than the country’s highest recorded rate in 1981. Concurrently, incidents of harassment in front of abortion provider offices rose between 2000 and 2008. According to the report, published online and in the forthcoming March 2011 edition of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health:
The 2008 rate stood at 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44, significantly below the 1981 peak (29.3 abortions for every 1,000 women). However, the 2008 abortion rate was virtually unchanged from the 2005 rate (19.4 abortions). Likewise, the total number of abortions in 2008 (1.21 million) was essentially unchanged from 2005.
Abortion numbers and rates may have been reduced around the beginning of the decade by the surge in medication-induced abortions early in pregnancy: the survey showed that these accounted for 161,000 of the abortions performed in 2000 — when the abortion drug RU-486 was approved — and 199,000 in 2008. Currently, 59% of all abortion providers offer RU-486, which must be taken within 9 weeks of a missed period. (More on Time.com: Are Doctors’ Exams a Barrier to Birth Control?)
Though the researchers didn’t look for a relationship between abortion rates and violence at abortion facilities, abortion providers reported an increase in aggressive protesting at clinics:
There was a disturbing increase in the proportion of large nonhospital providers (those offering 400 abortions or more) reporting antiabortion harassment—from 82% in 2000 to 89% in 2008. Harassment was particularly common among providers of all sizes in the Midwest and South. Picketing was the most common form of harassment (reported by 55% of providers), followed by picketing combined with blocking patient access to facilities (21%).
Another number that stayed consistent was the number of facilities offering abortion services, which reached 1,793 by 2008. Despite this number, 87% of U.S. counties — in which 35% of American women of reproductive age live — do not have abortion providers. Looking at the state level, researchers found a different story: 27 states and the District of Columbia lost providers, resulting in a drop in providers throughout the South, Northeast and Midwest, while 9 states boosted their abortion services and 14 experience no change in the amount of services in recent years. Of note, California had a 23% increase in providers, contributing to all-around 15% growth in abortion facilities in the West. (More on Time.com: The Complicated Link Between Abortion and Mental Health)
But because women may travel out-of-state to access abortions, for legal as well as privacy reasons, the researchers cautioned against interpreting the shift to suggest a rise in demand in California:
Although the numbers and rates of abortion vary substantially at the state level—both between states and over time—it is important to note that these data are calculated by state of occurrence, not by state of residence. Therefore, they do not distinguish abortions provided to nonresidents of a state, who may account for some of the changes in incidence in neighboring states (for example, the decrease in New Jersey and the parallel increase in Pennsylvania).
Although there are no proven theories as to why abortion rates may not have continued their decline, Beverly Winikoff, a Columbia University professor and president of Gynuity Health Projects told USA Today that the recession may have played a role: “Don’t dismiss the economy as a (strong) reason for not having a baby.”