TUESDAY, Jan. 11 (HealthDay News) -- The steady, long-term decline in the U.S. abortion rate stalled in 2008, and there has been an alarming increase in the number of abortion providers reporting harassment, a new study shows.

The abortion rate in 2008 was 19.6 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44, which is well below the 1981 peak of 29.3 per 1,000 women, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which focuses on sexual and reproductive health worldwide.

However, the 2008 rate was virtually the same as the 2005 rate (19.4 abortions per 1,000 women), and the total number of abortions in 2008 (1.21 million) was essentially unchanged from 2005.

There was little change in the number of abortion providers between 2005 (1,787) and 2008 (1,793). About 87 percent of counties in the nation had no abortion provider and 35 percent of U.S. women of reproductive age lived in those counties.

Among large nonhospital abortion providers (those who perform 400 or more abortions a year), the report noted a "disturbing" increase in the percentage who say they've experienced anti-abortion harassment, from 82 percent in 2000 to 89 percent in 2008.

In particular, harassment was more common among abortion providers of all sizes in the Midwest and the South. The most common form of harassment was picketing (reported by 55 percent of providers), followed by picketing combined with blocking patient access to facilities (21 percent), according to the study, which is based on a survey of all known abortion providers in the United States.

"In this time of heightened politicization around abortion, our stalled progress should be an urgent message to policymakers that we need to do more to increase access to contraceptive services to prevent unintended pregnancy, while ensuring access to abortion services for the many women who still need them," Sharon Camp, Guttmacher president and CEO, said in an institute news release.

The study also found that the use of early medication abortion performed in nonhospital facilities rose from 161,000 in 2005 to 199,000 in 2008. During that time, the proportion of all nonhospital abortions that used the early medication procedure increased, from 14 percent to 17 percent.

In 2008, 59 percent of all known abortion providers offered early medication abortion, which uses a combination of two drugs instead of surgery.

"That early medication abortion is becoming more widely available is good news," study author Rachel Jones said in the news release. "U.S. government reports have shown that abortions are increasingly occurring earlier in pregnancy, when the procedure is safest. Increased access to medication abortion is helping to accelerate that trend."

The study appears online and in the March print issue of the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.

More information

The American Academy of Family Physicians has more about abortion.