This fall, there have been several internet memes claiming there have been much larger declines in the incidence of abortion during Democratic presidential administrations than during Republican presidential administrations. Their implied message is that “pro-choice” Democratic presidents have been far more effective at stopping abortion than pro-life Republican presidents. However, a close analysis of reliable abortion data shows that this claim does not withstand serious scrutiny.
The internet memes purportedly showing large abortion declines during Democratic presidencies are misleading for three reasons.
1. Nearly all of them neglect to mention that the U.S. abortion rate rose sharply during the presidential administration of Democrat Jimmy Carter.
2. Some of these memes use abortion data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The fact that California stopped reporting its abortion data to the CDC in 1997 explains why some memes report a very large decline in abortion numbers during the Clinton administration.
3. Some of the memes analyze total abortions instead of the abortion rate. This is misleading because during the 1980s, there was an increase in the population of women of childbearing age (15-44). As such, even though the abortion rate declined during the Reagan administration, the overall number of abortions increased.
An analysis of abortion rate data from the Guttmacher Institute tells a much different story. Unlike the CDC, the Guttmacher Institute consistently reports abortion rate data from all 50 states. Additionally, since Guttmacher conducts a survey of abortion facilities, their abortion data is considered more reliable than CDC data. As the table below indicates, Guttmacher Institute data demonstrates that there has been a durable, long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate that has persisted through every presidential administration since 1980.
Abortion Rate Declines by Presidential Administration
Now it is true, there were larger abortion rate declines during the presidential administrations of Democrats Bill Clinton and Barack Obama than the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush. However, these abortion rate declines had nothing to do with the actions of either President Clinton or President Obama.
Since the Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision, states have played an increasingly larger role in abortion policy. During both the Clinton and Obama administrations, Republicans made large gains in many state legislatures. In fact, between 1992 and 2020, the number of states where Republicans controlled both chambers of the state legislature has increased from seven to 29. Furthermore, many states with Republican legislatures have been very active in passing a range of protective pro-life laws.
Furthermore, an analysis of the long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate provides some very important context to this discussion. Since 1980, the U.S. abortion rate has dropped by more than 50 percent. While many are quick to credit contraception use, the unintended pregnancy rate has actually fluctuated since the early 1980s. A better explanation for the abortion rate decline is because a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies are being carried to term. Approximately 54 percent of unintended pregnancies were aborted in 1980. That number fell to 42 percent by 2011. This nicely shows that pro-life educational, service, and legislative efforts have all been effective. Furthermore, this data also shows that the long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate has nothing to do with the election of Democratic presidents.
Overall, as the pro-life position has made gains in the court of public opinion, groups that support legal abortion are trying a new strategy. Instead of arguing that that pro-lifers are wrong, they try to argue that pro-lifers are ineffective. They are quick to circulate analyses which purportedly show that electing pro-life candidates or enacting pro-life laws are ineffective strategies for lowering abortion rates. Instead, they claim that increased spending on contraception, health care, and welfare is a better strategy for pro-lifers. However, there are no peer-reviewed studies which show that more funding for welfare, health care, or contraception programs will result in abortion rate reductions. Conversely, there is a significant body of academic research which shows that a range of pro-life laws reduce abortion rates.
In conclusion, pro-lifers should not be fooled by these internet memes. An important reason why the U.S. abortion rate has declined during both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations is because of the tireless work of pro-lifers. Our educational, service, and legislative efforts are paying dividends. A higher percentage of Americans identify as “pro-life.” According to Heartbeat International, the number of organizations devoted to assisting pregnant women has increased by 86 percent between 1988 and 2015. A significant body of research shows that the Hyde Amendment saves lives. My 2016 Lozier Institute study found that the Hyde Amendment saves over 60,000 lives every year. In addition, there has been a significant increase in the number of state level pro-life laws that have been enacted.
Pro-lifers would do well to stay the course.
Michael J. New is a Research Associate at The Catholic University of American and an Associate Scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_J_New