NPR

Survey: Fewer Abortions, More RU-486 Use in U.S.

A new study shows that the rate of abortion in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest level since the mid-1970s.

The survey, conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, found declines in every measure of abortion — the total number, the percentage of women who had abortions and the percentage of pregnancies that ended in abortion.

It also found a rise in the use of the abortion pill mifepristone, also known as RU-486.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Next Tuesday marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. According to a study released today by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions in 2005 fell to near 30-year lows.

NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner is here to talk about the new study. And, Julie, what do the numbers show?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, the numbers show that, pretty much, abortions went down by every conceivable measure. The actual number of abortions - 1.2 million in 2005 was the lowest number since 1976. The abortion rate - that's the percentage of the female population between age 15 and 44 that had an abortion that year -was 1.94 percent; that was the lowest since 1974. And the abortion ratio, which is the percent of pregnancies that end in abortion, was just over one in five; that was also the lowest since 1974.

BLOCK: Now, were these numbers that came out a surprise?

ROVNER: Well, yes and no. All of these numbers have been declining for several years. They peaked in 1990, so it's really just the continuation of a trend. But this is the first time that the numbers have dropped all the way back to the levels that we saw just after Roe was decided.

BLOCK: Julie, what was the methodology for the study? This is done by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, and again, this was back in 2005 - these numbers.

ROVNER: Yes, although they've been working on the same for the last two and a half years. The Guttmacher Institute has been doing this study really pretty much since Roe was decided. This is the 14th study that they've done. It's considered, really, the gold standard by those on both sides, even though Guttmacher is considered more of a reproductive right - a pro-choice-leaning organization, everybody trusts these numbers.

They're actually better numbers than the government is able to get because several states, most notably California, doesn't collect abortion statistics. They actually send out surveys to every known abortion provider and work pretty hard to get some of those surveys back. I think that's part of what takes so long to get these numbers out.

BLOCK: Is there an indication within these numbers, Julie, of why the number of abortions is going down?

ROVNER: Well, it really is just a survey, so you can't tell that much from the numbers. You can tell who's doing abortions and how many abortions that they're doing, but that doesn't stop people on both sides of the debate from speculating. It could be fewer unintended pregnancies from better use of contraception, or less unprotected sex. It could be the state law restrictions that make it more difficult for women to get abortions. It could also be that women are caring more unintended pregnancies to term because they don't have access to abortion 'cause there are fewer providers.

BLOCK: Julie, the survey also tells us - what percentage of abortions are carried out using the abortion pill.

ROVNER: Yes, it found that 13 percent of abortions are now being conducted, not surgically, but medically, using the abortion pill - mostly the abortion pill RU486, which was approved in the year 2000. There's - I guess there's some mixed news on this score for people who had hoped that this would really expand access for women who live in areas where there is no surgical abortion provider. The survey found that 87 percent of counties in the U.S., where more than a third of women live, do not have a surgical abortion provider.

But what the survey found was that even though there is now a significant percentage of abortions being provided via the abortion pill, mostly that's going on in urban areas where there is also access to a surgical abortion provider. So it seems to be expanding the options for women, but not necessarily expanding the access to abortion.

BLOCK: NPR's Julie Rovner, thanks so much.

ROVNER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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