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Nationwide and in Buffalo, abortion rates have sunk, but the battle goes on

WASHINGTON – Tens of thousands of abortion opponents, including several hundred from Buffalo, crowded onto the National Mall on Thursday to continue a fight that they believe is starting to result in progress.

While abortion is legal and is likely to remain so, the number of abortions in America – and in metro Buffalo – is plummeting. Nationwide, the number of abortions fell nearly 21 percent between 1997 and 2011. In Erie and Niagara counties combined, it fell 31 percent between 1997 and 2012.

Even the experts are unsure exactly why that’s happening, but one thing is certain.

“Everybody wants to take credit for it,” said Dr. Stan Bukowski, 59, an Amherst physician who was one of the anti-abortion activists who came to Washington for the annual March for Life on Thursday.

The precipitous decline in abortions – which President Obama mentioned in his State of the Union message Tuesday – lent an air of optimism to the annual rally and march to the Supreme Court.

“I see a more hopeful, optimistic tone among the people who come,” said Bishop Richard J. Malone of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, who has been attending the event for many years. “People are beginning to see some fruits of their commitment.”

Then again, defenders of family planning said it’s their work, not that of abortion opponents, that is behind the drop in abortions.

Karen J. Nelson, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York, noted that the use of birth control is on the upswing – and that 85 percent of the women who leave the region’s Planned Parenthood clinics do so with contraceptives.

“I think that because of the work we’re doing, we’re having some pretty good outcomes,” Nelson said.

While debating the reasons behind the drop in abortions, there’s no doubt in the data, which includes both traditional clinical abortions and the increasingly popular prescription-induced abortions.

Nationwide, the abortion rate dropped from 1990 to 2005 before leveling off for a few years, according to a study done for the Guttmacher Institute, which focuses on research into sexual and reproductive health issues. But then in 2008, the number of abortions started dropping again, falling 13 percent by 2011.

The recent decline has been even steeper in the Buffalo metropolitan area, with the number of abortions falling 15.3 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to data published by the state Department of Health.

And the abortion ratio – the number of abortions per 1,000 live births – has fallen almost as much, dropping 13.7 percent in Erie County and 16.5 percent in Niagara County in that time frame.

Numbers like that, which are similar nationwide, lead some national pro-life activists to detect a shift in the popular mood on the abortion issue.

“America is becoming pro-life,” said Carl A. Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, at the pre-march rally, citing a Marist College poll done for his organization in which 60 percent of those surveyed said abortion is morally wrong.“The pro-life culture is growing strong in America.”

Others, such as Malone, instead point to the use of ultrasound technology – which allows parents to see a fetus in the mother’s womb – as a key tool in convincing more women to keep their babies, no matter how difficult that may be.

“The ultrasound is a game changer,” said Victoria M. Thorn, founder and executive director of the National Office for Post Abortion Reconciliation and Healing, who spoke at a pre-rally breakfast sponsored by the diocese. “People look at that and say: ‘I see our child.’ ”

Radically different explanations of the falling abortion rate, though, come from family planning advocates such as Nelson and from the researchers at Guttmacher.

Not only are more women using contraceptives, they’re also using better ones, both Nelson and the Guttmacher researchers noted. For example, now about 15 percent of the women who visit Planned Parenthood clinics in Western and Central New York leave with “long-acting reversible contraceptives,” such as intrauterine devices, which are much more consistent in preventing pregnancy than birth control pills that women may or may not remember to take.

Nationwide, 9 percent of contraceptive users relied on those better birth control methods in 2009, up from only 2 percent in 1992, Guttmacher reported.

Dismissing state laws aimed at restricting abortion and a shrinkage in the number of clinics as possible reasons for the drop in abortions, the Guttmacher researchers did cite one other possible factor.

Noting that the U.S. birth rate fell 9 percent between 2008 and 2011, the Guttmacher researchers wrote in their 2014 report: “Taken together with the 13 percent decline in the national abortion rate, this means that substantially fewer women got pregnant in 2011 than in 2008. One common factor – the economy – may have played a role.”

Whatever the reasons for the decline, it came as good news to many at Thursday’s rally, which, as usual, featured a crowd of all ages – but with many young people – carrying signs with slogans such as “Thank God my mom’s pro-life” and “Abortion kills.”

“I’m just so glad to see so many young people here,” said Deanna Roehner, 28, of Cheektowaga. “They’re the future.”

Meanwhile, Mary Puszert, 61, of Cheektowaga said she has been attending the march for many years “for the babies.” And over time, she has noted that the pro-life movement – with its rallies and its outreach to pregnant women to offer them alternatives – is having an impact.

“This is the start of things changing for the better,” she said.