Abortion and Lead: There’s No Real Connection These Days

A loyal reader asks:

Abortion and lead: When are we getting that post?

Well…OK. Since you asked. But it might not be what you expect. The Guttmacher Institute reported this week that the abortion rate in the US has declined yet again and is now at its lowest level in decades. Here’s the chart:

There is good reason to believe that some of this long-term decline is, in fact, due to the elimination of gasoline lead. However, the average age for an abortion is around 23 or so, and the primary effect of lead is on teen pregnancy. What this means is that if lead deserves some of the credit for declining abortion rates (by reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies), that effect would most likely last for about 20 years after lead had been effectively eliminated. That gets us to the late aughts.

But abortion rates have continued to drop since then, and it’s unlikely that lead has continued to have any significant effect over the past decade. This doesn’t say anything one way or the other about the impact of lead on abortion in the 90s and aughts, but it does suggest that something else has been at work since then.

The usual answer among liberals is that it’s due to better awareness of contraceptive choices. The usual answer among conservatives is that it’s due to restrictive new abortion laws. For various reasons I’m skeptical of both answers, but I don’t have a better one of my own.


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