The conclusion of a sweeping new nationwide study released today that included interviews with every known abortion provider in the country is unambiguous. Abortions are decreasing.
The study, conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, which researches issues related to reproductive health and sexuality, found that in 2005, the U.S. abortion rate fell to 19.4 abortions per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 to 44, the lowest level since 1974. The total number of abortions also declined, to a total of 1.2 million in 2005, well below the all-time high of 1.6 million abortions in 1990.
But the study raises a fascinating and tricky question: Why?
The researchers who conducted the study said they simply don't know, but they do have two theories.
One reason could be that since people now have easier access to contraception -- including emergency contraception like Plan B -- there are fewer unwanted pregnancies.
Another reason could be that there are also fewer abortion clinics.
"Eighty-seven percent of counties in the United States don't have an abortion provider," Rachel Jones of the Guttmacher Institute said. "Thirty-five percent of women live in those counties."
Activists on both sides of this debate have their own theories, and everyone's claiming victory.
Supporters of abortion rights say the decline is the result of the sex education and family planning they provide.
Opponents say more women are coming to grips with the horror of abortion, in part because of the increasing numbers of so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which set up near abortion clinics and offer services like ultrasounds to convince women to keep their babies.
"This is a very powerful tool," anti-abortion activist Chris Slattery said of ultrasounds. "Now it's much harder for them to actually think of destroying a child."
Pomona College political science professor John Seery, who studies the politics of abortion, has his own theory, which he calls the "Juno" effect after the current movie in which a young woman decides to keep her baby for personal not political reasons. He said the movie reflects a cultural shift in the country.
"I think the filmmakers were onto something." Seery said.
The political and policy debate over abortion is as divisive and deadlocked as ever, even 35 years after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. But the study released today indicates that on a personal level, women are choosing to have fewer abortions.