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Why abortions are way down

By Timothy Stanley
February 4, 2014 -- Updated 1454 GMT (2254 HKT)
Young anti-abortion demonstrators at the annual March of Life on the National Mall last month
Young anti-abortion demonstrators at the annual March of Life on the National Mall last month
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: New study shows abortion rate at lowest point since 1973
  • He says politics of issue remain at high point. Reason is mass culture, politics drifting apart
  • Many reasons for abortion drop. Better contraception, shifting views among young people
  • Stanley: Politicians against abortion must face complexities of issue to be relevant

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."

(CNN) -- The U.S. abortion rate is at its lowest point since 1973. In 2011, there were fewer than 17 terminations for every 1,000 women; a fall of 13% since 2008 and only a little higher than when the Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade. You might not guess that's the way things are trending from what politicians have to say about the issue, given that they tend to prefer to discuss morals or rights rather than practicalities and realities. These numbers confirm that politics and mass culture are drifting further and further apart.

What's caused the fall in abortions? Some might be tempted to assume it's the various Republican-led state measures to restrict access to abortion; these include compelling abortion clinics to maintain the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, which is for many clinics almost impossible to achieve. But most of those state efforts only started recently, so they can't explain a long-term trend against abortion since a peak of 29 terminations per 1,000 women in 1980.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

According to researchers from the Guttmacher Institute, which released the new study, the latest decline is largely the result of improved birth control. In tough economic times, they argue, people tend to pay greater attention to contraception because they are more aware of the potential material costs of becoming pregnant. Also, the arrival of new kinds of contraceptives on the market, such as long-term intrauterine devices, means people aren't relying on pills and condoms that can fail.

Abortion rates lowest in 40 years

But, surely, equally important is a quiet revolution in popular attitudes toward abortion. According to Gallup, in 1996 some 56% of Americans self-identified as pro-choice and 33% as pro-life. By 2013, only 45% called themselves pro-choice while 48% said pro-life. Part of the reason may be greater awareness of what a termination involves. Improvements in technology have made it easier to visualize and comprehend the fetus early on in development. The debate over late-term abortion has encouraged some to think of that fetus' potential.

Ironically, Hollywood, which is expressly liberal, may have helped. Anti-abortion activists have talked about a "Juno effect," crediting the movie Juno, which is about a pregnant teenager who chooses to keep the child, with persuading many girls to see adoption or motherhood as better options than termination. Likewise, the Twilight series (bear with me here) promotes chastity, a borderline terror of male sexuality (if a vampire bites you, he just can't stop) and its lead character chooses to keep her baby even though the pregnancy nearly kills her.

Meanwhile, movies like "The Ides of March" present abortion as something that occurs entirely for the convenience of men (a political handler learns that an intern with whom he's just had a one-night stand already is pregnant from a one-night stand with his candidate boss, drops her off to have an abortion and she later kills herself).

It's uneven, to be sure, but youth culture is witnessing at least some blending of conservative and feminist values that encourage -- not necessarily pressure -- girls to choose either to hold out or embrace motherhood.

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There is no one explanation but rather a synthesis of medical, cultural and economic forces at work here. All of which paints a far more complex picture than the one we find in politics. Which is disappointing.

Many liberals speak of the need for abortion to be "safe, legal and rare," and even Hillary Clinton has called it "sad" and "tragic." But liberal legislators have consistently voted against even the most reasonable attempts to make it rarer; witness the partisan voting in the House on the recently proposed 20-week abortion ban. Many conservatives, at a national level, still talk in terms of a hypothetical federal ban that would put them up against the Supreme Court and potentially outlaw abortion in the cases when many voters would regard it as a tragic necessity. You may recall, with understandable disgust, Republican conversations about degrees of rape during the last election. It's one of the reasons so many lost.

Most Americans do not see abortion in these stark, simplistic terms. If they have slowly trended toward identifying themselves as pro-life, it is probably because the label reflects the flowering of a strong ideal ("I'd like there to be no abortions") tempered by a quiet acceptance of reality ("But I know they will continue"). Who, then, should these citizens vote for?

As a pro-lifer, I'd love to see a presidential candidate who better reflects the subtleties of what is one of the most painful, nuanced matters of our age -- be it a Republican who talks more about making having a child a positive, affordable decision thanks to better health care or educational opportunities, or a Democrat who says "safe, legal and rare" and actually means it. In the absence of that, we have to trust the people. And it's heartening to see so many more than ever before choosing life.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

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