Decline in abortions appears to be trend

June 16, 1994|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Sun Staff Writer

The number of abortions performed in the United States fell in 1992 to the lowest level since 1979, a decline that suggests a greater acceptance of unwed motherhood as well as a drop in availability of abortion in some parts of the country, a new study says.

A survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York found that 1,529,000 abortions were performed in 1992. In 1979, there were 1,498,000 abortions. But that number rose, and throughout the 1980s it remained near 1.6 million, the researchers said.

The rate of abortions also was down: 26 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age in 1992, from a high of 29 per 1,000 in 1981.

"This is a trend," said Stanley K. Henshaw, the Guttmacher Institute's deputy director of research and a co-author of the report. "It would appear to me now that this is not a blip on the screen. My contact with abortion providers suggests that the decline is continuing."

In Washington, the legal director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League said the study was a warning that "abortion will be a right in name only" if women cannot find an abortion clinic near them.

On the other side of the issue, a spokesman for the National Right to Life Committee did not celebrate the "modest" decline in numbers.

Instead, Douglas Johnson, Right to Life's legislative director, used the release of the study to warn that President Clinton's health care reforms would make abortion far more available and send the numbers up again.

The survey by the Guttmacher Institute, which is affiliated with the Planned Parenthood Federation, found the number of facilities where abortions are done has been falling at a rate of 65 a year, with women in rural areas and small cities having the least access to the procedure.

Women on the East and West coasts, as well as in most cities, had little difficulty finding abortion services, the study showed.

But researchers could not find an abortion provider -- a hospital, clinic or doctor who will do the procedure -- in 84 percent of the nation's counties.

In "nonmetropolitan areas," the rate is even lower: 94 percent of counties had no known abortion provider.

North and South Dakota have only one provider each, the surveyfound. Maryland, a far smaller state, has 51.

The distance a woman has to travel to find a place to have an abortion may decide whether or not she continues her pregnancy, the survey says.

Other factors that may be affecting the numbers of abortions, the researchers believe, are:

* "Unmarried women find it a more feasible option to have a baby on their own than a few years ago," Dr. Henshaw said.

"Evidence that nonmarital childbearing has become more acceptable may be seen in the soaring birthrate of unmarried women," the survey says.

In 1991, there were 45 births to 1,000 unmarried women of reproductive age, up sharply from 30 per 1,000 in 1981.

* "Another possibility is that there are fewer unwanted pregnancies. The number of women using the pill has increased, and the number of women using nothing is down," Dr. Henshaw found.

More people are using condoms, he added.

* "Anti-abortion attitudes may have become more prevalent," Dr. Henshaw said. "Or, women may feel intimidated to use abortion services for fears of public reprisals. That would be more the case in rural areas."

Does that mean anti-abortion groups' campaigns to change public attitudes have worked?

"It's hard to say, but it's a possibility that it's succeeded to some extent," Dr. Henshaw said. "If the anti-abortion people have changed people's values, that's legitimate," he added.

"But if women are intimidated, that's a problem."

At the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, in Washington, legal director Marcy Wilder said: "The significant drop in the number of abortion providers is cause for alarm.

"The study confirms our suspicions that access was diminishing," she said. "The national campaign of anti-choice terror and violence are clearly having an impact," she said.

She said that the challenge to groups that believe in keeping abortion available is "to preserve choice, reduce unintended pregnancy and reintegrate abortion into mainstream medical practices."

At the Maryland Right-to-Life Committee, executive director Roger Stenson said: "The numbers are welcome because fewer babies are being killed."

But he added that anti-abortion groups cannot celebrate so long as President Clinton's health care reform plans include abortion services.

"If the Clinton plan passes, the numbers are going to skyrocket," Mr. Stenson said, "because the availability of abortion is going to skyrocket.

"His objective is to make abortion as acceptable as Tylenol."

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