CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Four decades after the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion throughout the United States, the number of abortions performed on West Virginia women is fewer than half of what it was in the late 1970s, the most recent statistics available show.
The number of women in the state terminating pregnancies by abortion has declined steadily from 6,170 in 1978 to 2,169 in 2009, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research agency that conducts a periodic census of known abortion providers, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade court decision, which struck down a Texas law that made abortion a crime except when a woman's life is in danger.
West Virginia's abortion rates have fallen in step with the nation's rates, though the national rates have historically been higher than those of the state.
National abortion rates peaked soon after legalization, were constant during the 1980s and have declined since then, according to a Guttmacher Institute report.
In 2008, the West Virginia abortion rate was 6.6 per 1,000 women of reproductive age, compared to 19.6 per 1,000 women in the United States, Guttmacher reports.
While there may be many factors in the decline, no scientific research confirms a single reason, Dr. Michael Vernon, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at West Virginia University, said in an email to the Gazette.
One short-term factor could be the recent economic turmoil in the country, Vernon said. He said such downturns have been shown to correlate with a significant drop in conception and birth rates.
"With this significant reduction in the national conception rate, it would seem logical that the need for abortions would also decline," Vernon said. "So, indirectly the decrease in abortion rate may be related to the economy.
"Another suggestion for the reduction in abortions has been an increase in the availability of contraceptives, but I am not familiar with any research in [West Virginia] showing a correlation between availability of contraceptives and the decline in abortions," he said.
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of reproductive rights organization WV Free, said there are several reasons the state's abortion rates -- one of the lowest in the country -- have lagged behind national rates.
"[It's] one of the lowest in the country and I think there are a variety of reasons for that," Pomponio said. "We have a shortage of providers, and transportation is a challenge."
Vernon said anti-abortion advocates have been successful in decreasing the number of medical sites that offer abortions in the state. Some women travel out of state for an abortion as a result, he said.
West Virginia's only two abortion clinics are both in Charleston. For women in rural counties, getting to such a clinic can be a challenge, Pomponio said.
Advances to the state's sex education and public family planning policies have also played a role in decreasing the state's abortion rate, Pomponio said.
The state Department of Health and Human Resources, through the office of Maternal, Child and Family Health, offers free contraceptive methods, pregnancy tests and health education in addition to medical services through county health and other clinics.
Pomponio called the state's family planning program one of the best in the country.
"It really shows we as a state value access to affordable birth control," she said.
In 2006, the state's 148 publicly funded family planning centers gave contraceptive care to 53,700 women, including 14,000 teenagers, according to Guttmacher.
In 2008, those services helped women in West Virginia avoid 11,900 unintended pregnancies, which would likely have resulted in 5,300 unintended births and 5,000 abortions. Guttmacher estimates that public family planning services saved the state and federal governments more than $55 million in 2008.
The more the state can educate women and young people about family planning and sexual health, the fewer unintended pregnancies there will be and the greater chances for life opportunities there will be for women, Pomponio said.
"When women decide when and how they have children, the chances for economic security and educations are much greater," Pomponio said. "And we're so lucky in the 21st century to live in a time where if we have access to reproductive health care, women can decide if and when and how they want to have children."
Pomponio also credits the end of abstinence-only sex education with decreasing teenage pregnancy and abortion.
West Virginia state policy mandates that sex education covers sexually transmitted infection, abstinence, contraception, STI and HIV, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Community development is a missing piece when it comes to reducing teenage pregnancies, Pomponio said.