In a time when bad news dominates the headlines, it's thrilling to get a reminder of genuine progress. Early this week, that's just what we got, with the news that the abortion rate in America has hit its lowest level since 1973, the year that the Roe v. Wade decision offered constitutional protection to abortion.
In the early 1980s, abortion rates peaked at 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged fifteen to 44; today, that rate has been cut in half, per the Guttmacher Institute. For pro-lifers who are set to arrive on Capitol Hill next week for the annual "March for Life," news that abortion is on the decline should be cause for celebration. It should also serve as a reminder for conservatives who now hold the reins of government power to make sure the steps they take in the coming months serve to support, rather than inadvertently reverse, these trends.
Reporting by NPR reveals that while some pro-choice and pro-life advocates alike are positive about the new data, their attitudes diverge on what is causing the decline in the first place. Ideally, abortion would be falling because there is less demand for it, and some argue that the decline has much to do with reduced unplanned pregnancy. Yet the pro-life voice interviewed for the NPR piece instead focused on increased abortion restrictions as that cause for the decline in the abortion rate.
I cannot fathom why some pro-life advocates would dismiss the idea that abortion is declining because it is becoming increasingly unneeded, rather than because there are women who want one but cannot get it due to new laws. In an ideal world, elective abortion would fall to zero for lack of demand, not simply because it is denied to those who want it. And reducing that demand, preventing those unplanned pregnancies in the first place, ought to be a critical piece of the pro-life puzzle.
Thoughtful education programs and access to effective forms of contraception are key to preventing unplanned pregnancy. Yet this piece often feels missing from the puzzle when the discussion of how to reduce abortion comes up, with so much focus aimed at restricting abortion rather than preventing the circumstances in which one might consider it in the first place. Of course, this may be because talking about evidence-based sex-ed programs and birth control mean, well, talking about sex, or feeling like one is implicitly promoting sex, which isn't a comfortable topic for many people, including many conservatives. But for most people, contraception is not controversial.
Birth control tops Gallup's annual list of once-controversial issues that are measured in terms of "social acceptability," and the gap between Republicans, independents, and Democrats on the issue is almost nonexistent. You can't get Republicans and Democrats to agree on whether or not the sun rises in the east, but 87 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats find birth control to be morally acceptable.
Most of the sturm und drang around birth control these days has little to do with how most people view the issue, and much to do with the needless use contraception as a political football. For instance, when Mitt Romney said birth control was "working just fine" and to "leave it alone," he was nonetheless pilloried by partisan opponents as wanting to ban birth control, a totally malicious falsehood. Or take the entanglement of Obamacare and religious liberty. It's one thing to say that birth control should be a key part of women's health care. It's quite another to offer so little deference to deeply-held religious views that you sue a group of nuns who object to having to pay for it.
Yes, it is true that 94 percent of American Catholics believe you can be a "good Catholic" and still use contraception, according to a survey I conducted for The Shriver Report. But the Catholic Church, which champions the unborn and officially opposes the use of contraception, and has every right to do so in accordance with its beliefs. It's not surprising to see why embracing Obama-era policies on contraceptives would be low on many pro-life groups' agendas for reducing abortion.
There's also the intersection of how women access birth control and organizations that provide and promote abortion. Planned Parenthood has been at war with congressional Republicans who feel the organization's participation in abortion renders them unsuited to provide women's health services with federal funds. Republicans say they would like to shift those funds to community health centers and non-Planned Parenthood providers, but there is debate over the extent to which community health centers can rapidly step in as a replacement.
Pro-life advocates who are uncomfortable being boosters for birth control or who would cheer the demise of Planned Parenthood have their reasons for doing so. But the number one metric for those who wish to eliminate abortion ought to be: Is there less abortion happening? It would be an utter tragedy if, in the course of fighting battles over contraceptive mandates or Planned Parenthood, an unintended consequence is a rise in unplanned pregnancy and with it, a rise in abortion.
Being pro-life and being pro-contraceptive access for those who choose it should go hand in hand. The pro-life movement should celebrate progress and the historic low abortion rate when they convene in D.C., next week, and would be well served by focusing efforts on further reducing demand for abortion in the first place.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for The Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."