It's the kind of news that, at first glance, put a smile on my face: Abortion rates across the United States are plummeting, having dropped 9 percent from 2000 to 2005, and the percentage of women now having abortions is comparable to the mid-1970s, soon after abortions were first legalized. (The 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade is next Tuesday, January 22.) Perhaps the Republican president and Democrats in Congress have done something right after all.
But, being the skeptic that I am, I decided to take a closer look at the report released last night by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on sexual and reproductive health research. Are the rates falling because women have better access to birth control or because they have less access to abortion providers? I asked the Guttmacher folks. "We just don't know," admitted Rachel Jones, lead author of the report. "But we do know there's a lot of state-by-state variation." Oregon experienced a 25 percent drop in its abortion rate, while Connecticut had a 12 percent increase. And while abortion rates fell by nearly 20 percent in both Illinois and Mississippi, the reasons are probably as different as their northern and southern locales. Illinois passed a law in 2004 requiring insurance companies to cover birth control pills and other prescription contraceptives. Mississippi, on the other hand, passed legislation increasing regulation of abortion clinics; as a result, the state now has only one abortion clinic, down from four in 2000.
State laws aren't the only factor limiting access to abortions, though. In some places, the doctors themselves are pulling back. Many are reluctant to perform a procedure that, as abortion provider Warren Hern told me, "causes social and professional isolation and ruins your life." Hern was one of a handful of docs put on an antiabortion hit list in the early 1990s and targeted for assassination. He still receives regular death threats, and his clinic in Boulder, Colo., has been shot at by a sniper. He always keeps his windows closed and his shades down at night since doctors have been killed in their homes. And he says he knows physicians in his area who hide the fact that they do abortions because of the scorn they would face from friends, families, patients—even other gynecologists. It's no wonder fewer and fewer are doing abortions.
Still, I wanted to get a sense of what was driving the decrease in abortion rates across the nation. Is it getting harder to have an abortion in this country? After all, nearly 90 percent of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, which means most women have to drive for over an hour just to get to a clinic, to say nothing of the protesters who might greet them once they arrive. I decided to contact a gynecologist affiliated with a well-respected university who's a foremost expert on this subject. He told me, though, that if he spoke under his academic affiliation, his institution might suffer retribution possibly in the form of slashed funding or government grants. I think his refusal to be interviewed may have answered my question.