Abortions are down in Arizona, but why is debatable

Mohave, Yuma counties have lower rate than other counties compared to live births

Sean McGrath, Canada, Wikimedia Commons

PHOENIX – Arizona had fewer abortions last year than since the state began its current method of keeping track.

But the reason for that is less clear.

New figures from the state Department of Health Services show 12,659 recorded abortions in 2015. That compares with 12,900 the prior year and 14,401 in 2011. Statistics prior to that are not comparable.

Bryan Howard, president of Planned Parenthood Arizona, said sections of the report may be misleading, particularly in the relatively low number of abortions performed on residents of Mohave and Yuma counties – 18, with 1,845 live births in Mohave last year, and 49 and more than 3,000 live births in Yuma – where the figures are low by comparison with much of the rest of the state. He said women there who want to terminate a pregnancy may choose to travel to Nevada or California, meaning the abortion is not reported to Arizona health officials and does not show up in the report.

Cathi Herrod, president of the anti-abortion Center for Arizona Policy, cheered the report.

“That’s good for women and I would think for preborn children,’’ she said.

But the report does not prove that more women who get pregnant are choosing to carry the child.

The statistics show that the number of live births also dropped last year. And, like the number of abortions, that figure also is at the lowest point since 2011.

That leads Howard to conclude that the abortion numbers are down simply because more women have access to and are using birth control.

“Fewer women are getting pregnant,’’ he said.

Even Herrod said she cannot dispute that without further analysis of the report. But she still views the declining abortion numbers as positive.

“Whether it is because more women are choosing life, or it is due to other factors, I celebrate each life saved,’’ she said.

The report is mandated by state law. It covers not just the number and rate of abortions but is broken down by other factors, including age groups and even the procedure used to terminate the pregnancy.

For example, it shows that the number of abortions on girls younger than 15, while just 25, actually increased by 16 percent in 2014. In contrast, there were fewer abortions of those from 15 through 24 and women older than 40; other age groups had an increase.

It also shows that nearly two-thirds of abortions were done before the ninth week of pregnancy, with 67 pregnancies terminated at 20 weeks and 154 at 21 weeks or more.

That figure is politically significant because lawmakers voted in 2012 to ban abortions at 20 weeks on the premise the fetus could feel pain at that point. That law was blocked by federal courts, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court refused to overturn in 2014.

There are factors the report does not measure. One is the number of women who use emergency contraception in the form of the “morning-after’’ pill, essentially a high dose of hormones designed to prevent pregnancy.

The medication, available without a prescription, has not been without controversy.

One line of medical thinking is that the hormones interrupt ovulation. But another is that the drugs prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb, causing some people to say it is the equivalent of an abortion.

One reason numbers prior to 2011 are not comparable is that prior to then abortion providers filed paper reports. State health officials said that often led to problems keeping track of data.

The system requires clinics to file electronic reports. Health officials said that mandate, coupled with better training of abortion providers and their staffs, is designed to provide better statistics to use for comparison.