Health & Medicine

Abortion rates drop in California amid federal debate on Planned Parenthood, reproductive rights

Anti-abortion protest at Planned Parenthood on Saturday draws large crowd of counterprotesters

Supporters and opponents of Planned Parenthood rallied in front of the health clinic's midtown location on 29th Street Saturday Feb. 11, 2017. The protest was mostly civil, though a few abortion-rights activists wearing scarves over their mouths t
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Supporters and opponents of Planned Parenthood rallied in front of the health clinic's midtown location on 29th Street Saturday Feb. 11, 2017. The protest was mostly civil, though a few abortion-rights activists wearing scarves over their mouths t

Abortion rates are at an all-time low in California, and both sides of the political aisle are taking credit.

New abortion data from the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies reproductive health, shows that fewer women than ever are obtaining abortions nationwide. Abortion opponents call it proof that their efforts to sway women away from the procedure are working, while abortion rights advocates point to increased sexual education and contraceptive use as drivers of the decline.

In California, many women fear potentially tougher federal restrictions on abortion will jeopardize the reproductive health services they rely on and drive unplanned pregnancy, and possibly abortion, numbers up once more.

About 157,000 California women had an abortion in 2014, down 27 percent from the 214,000 who underwent the procedure in 2008, according to the institute. The national abortion rate dipped 25 percent during the same period. All but six states nationwide saw a decrease in abortion numbers between 2011 and 2014.

Rachel Jones, principal research scientist at Guttmacher, said the reasons for the drop vary from state to state. In some states, stricter abortion policies and Planned Parenthood clinic closures had an impact on the rate by limiting the number of places women could access the procedure. But in California and several other states without new abortion restrictions, increased contraceptive use is primarily responsible for the trend, she said.

“In general we think fewer women are getting pregnant when they don’t want to, which means fewer abortions,” she said. “For some women in some states it was decreased access to abortion. The states that had fewer clinics over the years, for about half it seemed clear that they changed the laws and that had attributed to the decline.”

Since taking office in January, President Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to defund Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide a range of reproductive health care services to more than 900,000 patients in California each year. Activists and politicians have responded to the attacks with marches, rallies and a popular #IStandWithPP social media campaign.

Trump has also pledged to ban abortion and repeal the Affordable Care Act, which covers the cost of approved contraception for all insured people. While California has passed its own provision requiring health plans provide free birth control, many women could lose health insurance if the Affordable Care Act is repealed and would have to pay for their often costly prescriptions without government subsidy.

National birth control use has climbed in recent years with more awareness and newer, more failproof methods. The proportion of men who had ever used condoms grew from 52 to 93 percent between 1982 and 2010, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Female use of intrauterine devices and contraceptive implants jumped 8 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to the Guttmacher Institute. About 62 percent of women of childbearing age nationwide are currently using some form of contraception.

Contraception has become more available and affordable in California as nonprofit groups, legislators and government agencies have pushed to reduce unplanned pregnancies. The government-funded Family Planning, Access, Care and Treatment program, administered through the state Department of Health Care Services, provides free family planning services including contraception to 1.8 million low-income residents. A 2013 state law allows women to pick up birth control over the counter.

In California, 99 percent of women live in a county with an abortion provider, compared with Wyoming, where just 4 percent do, according to the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research. California also has some of the least restrictive laws in the country about who can perform abortions and, unlike more conservative states, permits minors to obtain abortions without parental consent.

“States that have policies and that attempt to uphold women’s rights may just have a climate where women are freer to discuss and access health care coverage,” said Julie Anderson, senior research associate for the institute. “Maybe contraception is more understood, acceptable, available.”

Socorro Santillan, director of Fresno-based nonprofit group Barrios Unidos, said her goal is simply to prevent unplanned pregnancies. The organization provides sex education, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy checks and referrals to physicians at Planned Parenthood and other centers, if needed.

“When you think about it, there’s no woman that says ‘I want to have an abortion,’ ” she said. “The more education and prevention we provide our women, the more they’ll be able to plan their pregnancies and take care of their bodies, as opposed to not providing access and then saying, ‘Now you’re pregnant.’ 

While contraception may be one reason for the abortion decline, it doesn’t capture the whole picture, said Randall O’Bannon, director of education and research with the anti-abortion advocacy group National Right to Life in Washington, D.C. The recent closure of reproductive health clinics in some states, new laws that put up barriers to abortion and the growing “personhood movement” arguing fetuses have human rights contributed just as much, if not more, to the shift, he said.

“We believe that when women have the chance to hear other views, when given information about private and public assistance that is available to them, when ultrasound images confirm their gut feelings about the humanity of their unborn child, when they understand more clearly that abortion will not be the answer to their problems but can indeed make things worse, they’ll choose to let their babies live,” he said.

Legislators, activists and celebrities gather at the California state Capitol to support Planned Parenthood, which may face defunding under Donald Trump's administration.

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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