As president, Bill Clinton often stated his view that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," a summation that reflected the public's generally mixed feelings. Abortion rights opponents would certainly agree on the last goal, as would many abortion rights supporters. So the latest news on the prevalence of abortion in America should elicit approval from people who often disagree.
Between 2008 and 2011, says a new study by the Guttmacher Institute, the abortion rate fell by 13 percent, to the lowest level since 1973, when the Supreme Court made its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. The total number of abortions declined by the same proportion. There were nearly half a million fewer abortions in 2011 than in 1991.
All this didn't happen by accident.
The shifts "coincided with a steep national drop in overall pregnancy and birth rates," according to co-author Rachel Jones. She speculates that the weak economy induced some women to avoid or delay having kids.
Earlier research by Guttmacher indicates that teenagers today are waiting longer to begin having sex -- and are more likely than past adolescents to use some type of contraception when they do.
More young women are relying on birth control, particularly long-acting methods like the IUD and implants. In 2002, says the Guttmacher report, only 2 percent of contraceptive users used these options, but in 2001, 9 percent did.
These long-acting contraceptives, says the study, "are more than 99 percent effective at preventing pregnancy, last 3-12 years and, unlike methods such as the pill, leave little to no room for user error." Unwanted pregnancies, of course, are more likely than planned ones to end in deliberate termination.
Abortion-rights opponents have tried to reduce the number of abortions by enacting new restrictions and requirements -- waiting periods, mandatory counseling, forbidding "partial-birth abortions." While these could dissuade or prevent some patients from undergoing abortions, the researchers note that abortion rates fell especially fast in several states that didn't impose such rules -- including Illinois, where the rate plunged by 18 percent. Many of the regulations came about only in the second half of 2011, greatly reducing any potential impact.
Another factor may play a bigger role: evolving attitudes about abortion and related subjects. The willingness of some states to pass restrictions suggests that in those places, the public is less likely to see abortion as a valid option.
In addition, the incentives for abortion have diminished.
The onetime disgrace attached to out-of-wedlock births is largely gone. So is any stigma attached to giving up an infant for adoption. Changes like these have made abortion less appealing to women who didn't want to get pregnant in the first place.
Young people are also more likely to find abortion morally troublesome.
A Gallup poll last year found that Americans aged 18-34 are more likely than any other age group to say abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute cites the influence of prenatal sonograms: "Many young people have seen a picture of their younger brother or sister" in the womb.
It's possible for Americans to favor access to abortion while feeling more regard for the value of the fetus.
Legal abortion has been a fact of life in America for four decades now, and in spite of continuing public debate, it will remain so.
But if fewer women see the procedure as something they need or want for themselves, it will keep growing less common. And it's hard to see how anyone can object to that.