A new study found that the U.S. abortion rate fell dramatically between 2008 and 2014, thanks in large part to more people using effective birth control. But researchers are worried that lawmakers won’t learn the right lessons from the study’s findings — and that recent progress in the area is already being reversed under the Trump administration.
One of the other central findings of the study, authored by Guttmacher Institute researchers Rachel Jones and Jenna Jerman, is that lower-income people and people of color are still significantly more likely to get abortions than white, higher-income people.
But abortion rates did fall for all groups, including, for the first time in two decades, among those who make less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL), or a little less than $20,000 per year for a family of three.
Jones and Jerman say the biggest reason why is that, while lower-income people still face additional obstacles in obtaining contraceptives, we’ve seen expanded access to effective, affordable contraceptives.
Jerman, in an interview with ThinkProgress, noted that it wasn’t that people are using more contraceptives, but that people are using more effective contraceptives. For the first time, lower-income people are using long acting reversible contraceptives (LARCs) like IUDs at nearly the same levels as their wealthier peers.
“There has been an increase in use of LARCs that is particularly pronounced among women 20 to 24 who have the most exposure to risk,” Jerman said. “That’s sort of an important point.”
But Jerman doesn’t want to celebrate too quickly. Just days before the Guttmacher study was published, the Trump administration rolled back the birth control mandate. Businesses can now cite any sort of moral objection to covering contraceptives to be let out of the Obama-era obligation to cover birth control.
“There’s a lot to worry about,” Jerman said.
One thing to worry about, for example, is that despite all evidence that LARCs are the most effective way to prevent pregnancy, a White House memo that leaked last week detailed the Trump administration’s belief that teenagers should use the “rhythm method” to prevent pregnancy rather than birth control, a birth control method promoted by conservatives, where people seek to avoid pregnancy by tracking their menstrual cycle. Planned Parenthood estimates this method of birth control is only 76 percent effective.
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“We seem to be living in a post-fact era. There’s so much misinformation being spread constantly,” Jerman said. “It’s really discouraging to in a scientific field and try to spread facts.”
But, Jerman said, if it was really true that we were living in an era when facts no longer matter, then the Trump administration “wouldn’t be working so hard to hide them.”
“Scientific evidence and facts have a longer shelf life than the Trump administration… Facts and data will ultimately prevail. That gives me hope,” she said.
Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, cited similar concerns. Jerman’s study looked at 2008 through 2014, and “now what you have is the unraveling,” Hauser said.
Advocates for Youth has recently been running a campaign they call “1 in 3,” which works to spread awareness of just how common abortions are. Despite last week’s study that found that now just one in four women will get an abortion, Hauser said they won’t be changing the name of the campaign.
“Whether it’s one in three or one in four it’s still very common,” Hauser said. What’s more, Hauser is concerned that some of the study’s positive findings could be reversed, too.
“Given this administration … I’m not sure what we’re going to see. We might even see more of a move to self-directed abortions,” Hauser said. “Abortion has always been and will always be with us, the question is whether they’re going to push us back to the alleys.”
At any rate, many seem to be trying to do just that. Earlier this month, the House voted in favor of a 20-week abortion ban based on junk science, and last week, a federal appeals court ruled to further delay the abortion an undocumented teenager being detained in Texas has requested. Additionally, many of the attempts by Republican lawmakers in Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act aimed to defund Planned Parenthood, and all of them would have left millions of people without insurance.
In the days since the study was published, Hauser and others have been grappling with the other reason Jerman and her co-author cite as contributing to the declining abortion rate: Restrictive abortion laws are working.
As the study’s authors note, “Laws and policies that make abortion more difficult to access have a disproportionate impact on groups overrepresented among abortion patients, particularly those who are poor or low income.”
Anti-choice policies like those advocated by the Trump administration can successfully impede people’s access to reproductive care, as Jerman and Jones’ study notes.
“I want to emphasize that [anti-choice laws] do nothing to protect women. All caps. Nothing,” said Meera Shah, a New York City-based physician and fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health.
Shah said she has seen the negative effects of mandatory waiting periods and other restrictive abortion laws on her patients, in particular lower-income people who can get pregnant. With waiting periods in particular, she said, patients don’t return to the clinic not because they changed their mind, but because the waiting period means they need to secure another day off work or maybe arrange child care.
“If women don’t come back, it’s not because they changed their mind,” Shah said. “It’s because of logical issues… It’s because it’s expensive, they have to take off work, they have to find child care. Those are the reasons they don’t come back or get pushed into a later gestational period.”
But ultimately, advocates and care providers say they hope this study can act as proof of the importance of making both contraceptives and abortions accessible and affordable.
“Choice is necessarily constrained by the system in which it exists,” Jerman said. “It’s not just that we need to protect and increase contraceptive access but that we need to protect and increase access to abortion care.”
Shah echoed Jerman, noting that no form of birth control is perfect, so pro-choice advocates need to push not only for accessible and affordable contraceptives, but also for accessible and affordable abortion services.
“I’m not going to hesitate to say that I’m worried about how [anti-choice advocates] will interpret the data but we have to stick to the reality,” Shah said. “This data and these results should be used to create smart public policy and make women feel empowered and avoid unintended pregnancies.”
One shortcoming of the Guttmacher Institute’s study released last week is that only refers to women who get abortions. It’s unclear whether they included gender minorities’ reproductive choices in their data.