Despite the denial of federal funds for abortions, 95 percent of low-income and other women who might otherwise have turned to Medicaid for help have gotten abortions anyway, the government's Centers for Disease Control reported yesterday.
Contrary to forecasts of both pro- and anti-abortionists, these women have gotten safe, legal abortions through state and privately funded programs, Dr. Willard Cates of CDC's Abortion Surveillance Branch writes in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Just 1 percent resorted to illegal operations.
The Hyde Amendment has indeed nearly halted federally funded abortions. In fiscal 1977, some 295,000 low-income women had abortions financed by $87 million in combined federal-state Medicaid funds. In fiscal 1978, only about 4,000 abortions got federal funding.
The situation is not the same in all states. There have been few illegal abortions anyplace but the rate is higher in some restrictive states.
Reliable surveys have not been made everywhere. But in several states "about 20 to 30 percent" of women who otherwise might have had Medicaid abortions have instead had their babies, Cates estimated in an interview.
In Texas in 1978, 35 to 40 percent of such women had babies. In Ohio, the figure is 18 to 20 percent and in Georgia 18 percent.
But the 95 percent figure is still true nationally, Cates said, "because the bulk of low-income women live in the big states like New York and California that have continued to fund abortions."
The CDC survey covers August, 1977, to February, 1980. But all the trends have continued, Cates reported.
Everywhere, he said, the majority of poor women have had abortions by various means: state funds, local funds, their own money, cut rates by abortion clinics or doctors and some private charity, including new funds established by Planned Parenthood and other groups.
Until 1977 the federal government paid half and states and localities half the cost of Medicaid abortions. The 1976 Hyde Amendment, which went into effect in August, 1977, ended federal funding except to save a pregnant woman's life, to prevent long-lasting physical damage or in cases of rape or incest.
In February, 1980, the law was temporarily suspended by the courts. Then the Supreme Court ruled last September that the amendment was legal, and the federal cutoff went back into effect.
Today just nine states (including New York, Michigan and Maryland) voluntarily fund Medicaid abortions. California and Massachusetts do so under court orders based on state constitutions promising equal treatment. Pennsylvania and New Jersey do so under interim court orders.
Other states pay for a few. Virginia pays only when the mother's life is endangered, accounting for just 26 abortions in 1979, the last year for which a count is available.
But 85 percent of needy women who might get Medicaid abortions live in states that have continued paying. So abortions have generally continued.
"Pro-life" groups, as Cates points out, had hoped to stem the abortion tide. They also had argued that paying in rape and incest or for fear of long-lasting physical damage would lead to much fraud and abuse. In fact, Cates said, there was no evidence of widespread fraud under the more liberal federal guidelines.
In fact, a fourth of Medicaid-eligible women who had abortions in states that still funded them actually used non-state funds, perhaps, Cates said, because there has been so much confusion they did not know they were eligible.
"Pro-choice" groups had forecast a new wave of illegal abortions. At most, Cates said, no more than 5 percent of low-income women in any state have resorted to self-induced or non-physician abortions.
Nationally, there were only two deaths following illegal abortions in 1976, four in 1977, seven in 1978, none in 1979 and "we think one or two in 1980 and one so far in 1981."
One death, he said, is "directly attributable" and three are "indirectly attributable" to lack of federal funds.