NEW YORK — The long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate stalled as the recession took hold, according to the latest comprehensive survey of America's abortion providers.
The Guttmacher Institute, which periodically surveys U.S. abortion providers, reported Tuesday that there were 1.21 million abortions in 2008 and a rate of 19.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44.
Both figures were up slightly from the previous 2005 survey, ending a steady decline since 1990, when U.S. abortions peaked at 1.6 million and the abortion rate was 27.4.
One possible factor was the recession that hit in 2008, altering the financial prospects for many families.
"Abortion numbers go down when the economy is good and go up when the economy is bad, so the stalling may be a function of a weaker economy," said University of Alabama political science professor Michael New. "If the economy does better, you'll see numbers trending down again."
The Guttmacher Institute supports abortion rights, but its surveys are widely considered to be the most comprehensive available because federal agencies rely on incomplete data from state governments.
Sharon Camp, the institute's president, said the stalled numbers should serve as an "urgent message" to policymakers that access to contraceptive services should be increased to prevent unintended pregnancy.
Many anti-abortion activists have opposed this approach, saying abortion rates can best be lowered through abstinence-only sex education and tougher state-level restrictions on abortion.
Many states have expanded restrictions in recent years, and others will be considering such steps in the aftermath of conservative gains in legislatures in the Nov. 2 elections. For example, lawmakers in several states would like to emulate Nebraska in outlawing abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy based on the premise that fetuses can feel pain after that point.
"We know that it makes a difference what the law says in any particular state," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life. "You can see dramatic decreases in abortion."
Elizabeth Nash, a Guttmacher public policy associate, said the restrictive state laws tend to have little impact on affluent and middle-class women.
"What they end up doing is targeting the most vulnerable women – the ones without resources to go other places," she said.
The new Guttmacher report documented sharp variations by state – with abortion rates over 30 percent in Delaware, New York and New Jersey and at or below 6 percent in Wyoming, Mississippi, Kentucky, South Dakota and Idaho.
The report also documented a significant increase in early medication abortion, entailing use of the so-called abortion pill. The number of such procedures performed in clinics – which provide 94 percent of all abortions – rose from 161,000 to 199,000 between 2005 and 2008, accounting for about 17 percent of abortions.
Initially known as RU-486, the pill was approved for use in the U.S. in September 2000. Affording women more privacy than a surgical abortion, the pill marketed as Mifeprex now accounts for about one-quarter of U.S. abortions performed in the first nine weeks of pregnancy.
"U.S. government reports have shown that abortions are increasingly occurring earlier in pregnancy, when the procedure is safest," said Rachel Jones, lead author of the Guttmacher study. "Increased access to medication abortion is helping to accelerate that trend."
According to the new study, the number of abortion providers changed little – from 1,787 to 1,793 – between 2005 and 2008. As was the case before, 87 percent of U.S. counties – home to 35 percent of women of reproductive age – had no abortion provider.
The new report did not provide demographic details on the ages, ethnicity and socio-economic status of women obtaining abortions, but Sharon Camp said it was clear that African-American and Hispanic women continued to account for a disproportionate share of abortions because they had relatively high rates of unintended pregnancies.
She remarked that abortion, since it was legalized nationwide in 1973, has become one of the most common surgical procedures.
"Yet after all these years," she said, "it remains maybe the most highly sensitive issue in our country on the personal and political level."