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Abortion-rights advocates’ claim that ‘one in three women has had an abortion’

(EPA/Michael Reynolds)

“One in three women in this country has had an abortion.”
— Claim in a letter by organizations supporting abortion rights, Sept. 22, 2016

Ahead of the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, six organizations supporting abortion rights released a letter to moderator Lester Holt that urged him to ask about the presidential nominees’ stances on abortion. The letter campaign was a follow-up to an effort by NARAL Pro-Choice America during the Democratic primary debates encouraging moderators to ask questions about abortion. Abortion was discussed during the final presidential debate on Oct. 19 and during the Oct. 4 vice-presidential debate.

A reader pointed out that the wording in this letter is similar to a Two-Pinocchio claim often cited by abortion-rights advocates: One in three women will have one abortion by age 45. (In fact, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue repeated that statistic during her speech at the Democratic National Convention.) So we checked the facts.

The Facts

The claim is a reference to the findings of a 2011 study by Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, using data from the 2008 Abortion Patient Survey of nearly 9,500 women. Researchers used survey data to find the first abortion rate for age subgroups, multiplied the rate by the number of years in each age group, and added up the number of first-time abortions that had taken place by the time women were 45 years old. This was called the “cumulative first abortion rate,” through which they came up with the “lifetime incidence” of abortion, or the “one in three” figure.

The study found that 30 percent of women (effectively, one in three) would have an abortion by age 45, if the 2008 abortion rate prevailed.

The Guttmacher Institute usually adds the caveat that the figure is based on the 2008 abortion rate, and we have urged advocates and politicians to do the same. But the claim in the letter did not contain any caveat. Instead, it said one in three women (no age specification) has already had an abortion.

The latest national abortion data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are from 2012, when there were 699,202 legal induced abortions reported from 49 reporting areas. The abortion rate was 13.2 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 years. Census data show there were 62.3 million women aged 15 to 45 in 2012. One-third of that is 20.6 million women. These numbers show the claim in this letter is not correct.

The Guttmacher Institute is now analyzing the 2014 Abortion Patient Survey. (These surveys are conducted every six to eight years.) Findings from the 2014 survey will be the first update since 2008. Without the breakdown of first-time abortions of women ages 15 to 44 in 2014, we can’t definitively say whether this statistic would increase or decrease, or by how much — though previous trends indicate it could decrease.

The decline in abortion rates from 1992 to 2008 was accompanied by a parallel decline in the proportion of women expected to have an abortion by 45. We do not know yet if the 2014 data will show the same trend.

“When Guttmacher says these women [one in three by age 45] will have an abortion, they suggest an inference of data — that these rates stay constant — instead of a projection,” NARAL spokeswoman Kaylie Hanson Long said. “Without new data, we have to presume rates have stayed constant. We wish this specific kind of data could be released more frequently, but until that’s the case, we will use this data.”

Guttmacher Institute spokeswoman Rebecca Wind noted the findings were, indeed, a projection: “At the time those data were published, it was an accurate statement to say that one in three women would have an abortion by age 45 (not has had an abortion, it’s a projection by the end of their reproductive years).”

Wind said no data support the claim in the letter: “We anticipate an update to that figure using more current data sometime in the next year, but at the moment, there is no current data to support that statement.”

The broader point made in the letter, Hanson Long said, is that “abortion is a common medical procedure under attack by anti-choice politicians. It’s a procedure that must be respected and available, given there’s a clear need for it for so many women in this country. . . . The issue of abortion access should not be pushed to the sidelines — it should be a central part of any discussion of how to help women become full partners in society.”

The Pinocchio Test

According to the letter penned by abortion advocates, one in three women have had an abortion. This is an inaccurate reference to research relying on data nearly a decade old.

The Guttmacher Institute’s 2011 report found that one in three women will have an abortion by age 45, if 2008 abortion rates prevailed. Until the study of the 2014 data is complete, we will not know whether this rate has remained constant. The Guttmacher Institute usually adds the caveat that the figure is based on the 2008 abortion rate, and we have urged advocates and politicians do the same. In this case, the statistic was simplified way too much — that one in three women (with no age specification) have had (not “will have by age 45”) an abortion. This statistic is unsupported by facts and earns Four Pinocchios.

Update, Oct. 19, 2017: Guttmacher concluded that the figure had indeed changed to one in four, as we had suspected.

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