Why Have Teen Abortion Rates Plummeted?

In the New York Times today, Scott Arbeiter writes about abortion:

The Guttmacher Institute reported last month that the rate of abortions per 1,000 women has fallen to the lowest rate since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. While the causes for this decrease are complex, many of us who are pro-life found this to be good news.

I’m not sure it’s all that complicated, especially for teen abortions. Take a look at this chart, which uses Guttmacher data on teen pregnancy rates and teen abortion rates:

As you can see, the teen abortion rate almost precisely followed the teen pregnancy rate from 1979-88 and 1995-2011. So there’s not a big mystery about abortion per se: when teens get pregnant less, they get fewer abortions. The exception is 1988-95. For some reason, teen abortion rates declined fairly dramatically even though pregnancy rates stayed about the same. So there are two interesting questions here:

Why did the teen pregnancy rate go down? The most obvious possibility is increased contraceptive use, but since 1995, at least, that doesn’t really seem to be the case (1995-2006 here, 2007-12 here).1 Another possibility is that teens became less impulsive starting around 1990 thanks to lower rates of lead poisoning.

What happened in 1988-95? Beats me. Teen pregnancy rates were fairly flat. Ditto for contraceptive use. But the abortion rate plummeted by a third.

The primary answer to the question of declining teen abortion rates is that teens are simply getting pregnant a lot less than they used to. That’s the issue to focus on.

UPDATE: A reader emails with a possible explanation for the 1988-95 mystery:

As a child of the 80s who sat through many health classes, I think you may be missing an important factor in the decline in teen pregnancy: AIDS. In the 1988-1995 period you describe, I can tell you that it was drilled into teenagers’ heads that unprotected sex would lead to AIDS and death. This was the era of Magic Johnson, Philadelphia, TLC’s Waterfalls, etc. Unlike earlier in the 80s, AIDS was no longer seen as confined to homosexual communities. Relatedly, condoms became widespread and “cool” for teenagers, in a way they weren’t in the 70s and 80s.

Maybe! It sounds pretty plausible, anyway.

1Data on teen contraceptive use is frustratingly hard to get. If anyone knows of a reliable data series that goes back to the 70s, I’d be obliged. It’s also worth noting that although overall contraceptive use has been fairly flat since 1995, the use of highly effective methods has increased.


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