The candidates running for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination have gone out of their way, time and time again, to make sure the American public knows just how opposed to abortion rights they are.
The candidates, perhaps to boost their conservative credentials with the religious right, have called for everything from the defunding of Planned Parenthood -- mistakenly labeled as a major abortion provider, although only 3 percent of its services are abortion-related -- to a federal ban on abortion. Rick Santorum, perhaps the most vehemently anti-choice candidate remaining in the race, went so far as to deride contraception in October, telling a reporter that it it's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.
What's more, 2011 was a particularly zealous year for anti-abortion activists. Legislatures introduced more than 1,100 reproductive rights-related provisions across all 50 states last year, 135 of which were ultimately enacted. Sixty-eight percent of these new provisions restrict women's access to abortion services, according to the Guttmacher Institute, in the form of waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, insurance restrictions and lofty clinic regulations.
Some of the proposals, such as those inspired by the controversial personhood movement, aim to challenge the constitutionality of the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, which ruled that a woman's decision to have an abortion is protected by the right to privacy under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. On Monday, pro-choice and anti-abortion groups alike held demonstrations to mark the 39th anniversay of the decision.
Just what good the increased restrictions will do is debatable. While supporters argue that tougher abortion laws will dissuade women from going through with the procedure -- or even persuade them to avoid sexual acts that could pose a pregnancy risk -- new research from the Guttmacher Institute and World Health Organization (WHO) found that highly restrictive abortion laws do not actually lead to lower abortion rates. Moreover, it concluded that countries with the most restrictive laws tend to see a larger share of unsafe procedures, as well as deaths, as a result.
Higher Share of Abortions Occur in Developing Nation's with More Restrictions
Africa and Latin America, regions where abortion is illegal in most circumstances, currently have the highest abortion rates in the world, according to the study, which based its data on national surveys, official statistics, hospital records and research paper from across the globe. The regions experienced 29 and 32 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age in 2008, respectively, considerably less than developed nations -- excluding Eastern Europe -- where 17 per 1,000 women underwent the procedure that year.
In the developing world, more than half of all abortion procedures are unsafe, compared to only 6 percent in the developed world. WHO defines unsafe abortions as those performed by individuals who lack the necessary training or skills, as well as terminations that take place in environments that do not meet minimal medical standards.
In nations where abortion is legal on broad grounds, it is generally safe, according to the study. For example, in the U.S., abortions result in 0.6 deaths per 100,000 operations. Meanwhile, in Latin America, there are 30 abortion-related deaths for per 100,000, while in Sub-Saharan Africa that number skyrockets to 460 deaths per 100,000.
The evidence makes clear that if a woman is determined to avoid a birth, she will resort to an abortion if that is her only option, regardless of the law, said Sharon Camp, the President and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute, in a statement. Until unsafe abortion is embraced as a public health issue needing urgent attention, women, their families and communities will continue to suffer the consequences.
Contraceptives Key to Lowering Abortion Rates
After a period of substantial decline, the global abortion rate stalled at about 28 per 1,000 women in 2008. The plateau coincides with a slowdown in contraception use, which the United Nations reports has been marked in developing countries where family planning services are scarce.
Without greater investment in quality family planning services, we can expect this trend to persist, Gilda Sedgh, a senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, said in a statement.
Experts agree that educating individuals about family planning and contraceptive options is the best way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and as a result, abortions. However, even in the U.S., many people -- particularly teenagers -- have a severe lack of knowledge regarding the importance of contraceptives.
A survey of nearly 5,000 teenage mothers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that they were surprisingly clueless about their chances of getting pregnant before becoming sexually active. About half of the girls in the survey said they were not using birth control at the time they became pregnant; a third of those girls said they didn't use contraceptives because they believed they couldn't get pregnant, although the CDC reports their reasoning for that belief was unclear.
This report underscores how much misperception, ambivalence and magical thinking put teens at risk for unintended pregnancy, said Bill Albert, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told The Associated Press.
To ensure that women have the contraceptives they need to prevent unplanned pregnancies, on Friday the Obama administration announced that private insurance companies must begin covering contraceptives without charge by Aug. 1. The order comes from a mandate in the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which says insurers must cover preventative health services and cannot charge for them.
Health, Education Groups Encourage New Sex Education Standards
Earlier this month, a coalition of health and education groups released a new set of age-appropriate sex education standards that are designed to foster a healthy understanding of sex and relationships in children before they reach puberty.
The coalition recommends graduating eighth grade students should be able to describe the signs of pregnancy, define emergency contraception and its use, and compare and contrast behaviors -- including abstinence -- and understand the potential disease transmission from each. By the end of high school, it says students should be able to define sexual consent and it implications on sexual decision making, and understand their legal options relating to pregnancy, adoption, abortion and parenting.