Originally created 01/18/98

Abortion numbers dropping



Twenty-five years later, it is not the center of a whirlwind of controversy. In fact, it's becoming less and less common.

A quarter-century after the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion, Richmond County's abortion rate is the lowest in a decade, although people on either side of the issue disagree about the cause.

At Planned Parenthood on Broad Street, they believe increased sex education and access to contraception has made a dent in unwanted pregnancies. Across the street at Care Pregnancy Center, they say decreased funding and fewer doctors willing to perform abortions have made it a less convenient choice for women who need more time to think about their decision.

What the numbers show is that abortions performed in Augusta have been cut almost in half in the past 10 years.

In an October 1989 story in The Augusta Chronicle, assistant executive director Kay Mills said the clinic performed 1,800 abortions the previous year. That's now down to 1,000 a year, said external affairs coordinator Mary Beth Pierucci.

The figures mirror a trend of falling abortion rates across the country: After reaching a peak in 1990 with 1.4 million abortions nationwide, they dropped to 1.2 million in 1994, the last year that numbers are available from the Centers for Disease Control.

Observers have debated whether the drop reflects the changing fertility pattern of aging Baby Boomers, the wider availability of contraception or decreased access to abortion.

"There's been a lot of money cut from abortion clinics," said Susan Swanson, director of the Care Pregnancy Center. "When you lose your funding, you can't market yourself as well. And abortion is a product. It's a product sold to young women who are scared. Someone says `We can help you,' and in a moment of crisis, they might take it."

Mrs. Swanson cited a drop in the number of clinics that offer abortion, a factor that also has been pointed to by activists favoring legal abortions -- who have a different idea about the desirability of decreased access. Nationwide, 84 percent of counties have no doctor who performs abortions.

From a clinic that's been open since before the Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 and has watched a decline in abortion patients in recent years, Ms. Pierucci points to a corresponding drop in teen pregnancy, saying she believes that better contraception has made an impact on the abortion rate.

Government figures show the number of unwanted pregnancies among all women dropped from 12 percent in 1988 to 10 percent in 1992. Richmond and surrounding counties have seen a steady decline in teen pregnancies in recent years.

"I think we're seeing a decrease in abortion procedures because of better prevention," Ms. Pierucci said. "We've had the advent of AIDS and the use of condoms, more family-planning services, sex education."

In Richmond County, the debate -- like the debate over abortion itself -- is not heated. Activists on both sides of the fence admit it's been awhile since the controversy stirred up public opinion in the streets of Augusta.

A decade ago, the Christian Action Council and the Right to Life organization held protests at the courthouse, marches down Broad Street and candlelight vigils in front of Planned Parenthood. An Augusta chapter of the National Organization for Women staged rallies on the riverwalk and held a letter-writing campaign in Pendleton King Park.

Now, a small group of protesters meets weekly in front of the Planned Parenthood clinic on Tuesday afternoons, and the Care Pregnancy Center plans a bus trip to the statewide rally in Atlanta on Thursday, the anniversary of Roe. vs. Wade.

"I think people are just tired," Mrs. Swanson said with a wry laugh. "We're all getting older, and our energy level at the center is focused on helping the needs of the girls who come to us. ... If nobody else picks it up, there's only so much energy to go around."

On the pro-abortion side of the fence, there is a complacency -- legalized abortion is, after all, the status quo -- that flares into action only when there is a threat, these activists said. The rallies of 1989 and 1992, when the Supreme Court decided cases that allowed states to restrict abortions, but kept the procedure legal, are cases in point.

"That's getting more and more typical, I think, of both sides," said Beth Cope of the Georgia Abortion Rights Action League in Atlanta. "I feel people have to have a sudden sense of immediate threat to get involved."