washingtonpost.com
Abortion: Just the Data
With High-Court Debate Brewing, New Report Shows Procedure's Numbers Down

By Naseem Sowti
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A new analysis of the most recent abortion data shows that the number of U.S. women having the procedure is continuing its decade-long drop and stands at its lowest level since 1976.

In the year 2002, about 1.29 million women in the U.S. had abortions. In 1990, that number was 1.61 million.

The data, collected by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that collects information from abortion providers and public sources, show that for every 1,000 pregnancies that did not result in miscarriage in 2002, there were 242 abortions. This figure was 245 in 2000 and 280 in 1990. The institute's mission is to protect reproductive choice, but its reports are considered accurate across the political spectrum.

With President Bush preparing to nominate at least one new Supreme Court justice whose presence on the high court could produce new rulings on abortion, the data are already being interpreted differently by abortion rights advocates and antiabortion activists. But scientists say it is difficult to determine why the number of abortions has been dropping.

"There are so many things feeding into" the decline, said Lawrence Finer, associate director of domestic research at Guttmacher. Possible factors, he said, include changes in contraceptive technologies and use, changing ideas about family size and abortion, and reduced access to abortion services. Pregnancy clinics and abstinence programs may also have contributed to the declines, he said.

Who Gets Abortions?

Women with unintended pregnancies are those most likely to get abortions. According to the Guttmacher report, 47 percent of unintended pregnancies are aborted. Teenagers, unmarried women, black and Hispanic women, and those with low incomes are more likely than the population as a whole to have unintended pregnancies.

The report shows that non-Hispanic white women get about 40 percent of all U.S. abortions, black women 32 percent and Hispanic women, who can be of any race, 20 percent. Women of other races account for the other 8 percent. Black and Hispanic women have higher rates of abortion than non-Hispanic whites, the report states.

Other facts about U.S. abortions from the Guttmacher report:

· Six in 10 women who had abortions in 2002 were mothers. "Despite the common belief, women who have abortions and those who have children are not two separate groups," said Finer.

· A quarter of abortions occur among unmarried women who live with a male partner, putting this group at elevated risk of unintended pregnancy and abortion.

· The majority -- 56 percent -- of women who terminate their pregnancies are in their twenties. Teenagers between 15 and 19 make up 19 percent of abortions, although this percentage has dropped substantially in recent years.

This drop may be due to use of longer-acting hormonal contraceptives and lower rates of sexual activity, said Joyce Abma, a social scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

She added that there has been a decline in sexual activity reported by teenage males, which could be a contributing factor to lower pregnancy and abortion rates among teens.

· The incidence of abortion spans the economic spectrum, but low-income women are overrepresented among those having the procedure. Sixty percent of women who had abortions in 2000 had incomes of less than twice the poverty level --below $28,000 per year for a family of three, for example. This is in part because "low-income women have lower access to family planning services" such as contraception and counseling provided by health departments, independent clinics or Planned Parenthood, Finer said.

· Almost 90 percent of abortions are performed in the first trimester -- during the first 12 weeks after the first day of the woman's last menstrual period -- with most performed before nine weeks. Because of newer surgical and medical techniques, the proportion of abortions performed at six weeks or earlier has almost doubled in the past decade.

Less than 1 percent of abortions are done after 24 weeks.

· The number of abortion providers declined by 11 percent between 1996 and 2000, to 1,800. In 2000, one-third of women aged 15 to 44 lived in a county that lacked an abortion provider.

About the Data

There are two main sources of national data on abortion: the Guttmacher Institute and the CDC. While both are regarded as dependable by major groups on both sides of the abortion issue, their numbers are different, and less precise than some other health statistics.

Not all states require reporting of abortions. The District, Maryland, New Hampshire and New Jersey do not mandate abortion reporting. California does not collect abortion data at all. Alaska and New Hampshire have not released statistics since 1998. This affects CDC's data, which is assembled every year from reports received from state health departments.

Due to differing reporting requirements and data-gathering procedures, abortion information for the District, Maryland and Virginia does not permit meaningful comparisons.

Guttmacher produces its reports by contacting abortion providers nationwide; its reports are considered more comprehensive than the CDC's. But the institute publishes the data only every four or five years. Neither group has published data for years beyond 2002.

Despite the inconsistencies of methods, the trends reported by CDC and Guttmacher correspond closely to each other. ·

Resources

For the complete Guttmacher report, visit http://www.agi-usa.org/sections/abortion.html , click on "An Overview of Abortions in the U.S."

For the CDC's complete report, visit http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/indss_2004.html , and click on "Abortion Surveillance -- United States 2001.

Or visit http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr52/nvsr52_23.pdf to download "Estimated Pregnancy Rates for the United States -- 1990-2000: An Update").

© 2005 The Washington Post Company