By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research
Although they’re missing data from too many states to give an accurate national total, the latest surveillance report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does tell us something significant about abortion in America: that the number of abortions are indeed going down in the country, and possibly by a significant margin.
According to the CDC’s “Abortion Surveillance,” there were 765,651 abortions reported to government agency by state health departments for 2010. What we do see with the latest report is a drop of 3.1% from the totals of 2009, which were already a drop of 4.6% from the 2008 surveillance report. If this is accurate, that is very, very good news!
But before rushing out to tell people that the number of abortions in the U.S. has dropped by almost half a million, keep in mind that three states – Maryland, New Hampshire, and the nation’s most populous state, California – did not report any abortion data to the CDC.
These three missing states not only constituted over 15% of U.S. population in 2010, but also housed a relatively high saturation of abortion clinics.(e.g., a web search shows some 90 abortion clinics operated in California by Planned Parenthood alone). Thus it’s clear that this count is short by several hundred thousand.
Even before California and New Hampshire data was pulled out of the national reporting system in 1998, CDC totals were always substantially lower than figures obtained by the Guttmacher Institute, which contacted abortion clinics directly (though only every few years or so). Guttmacher’s most recent study put the annual total at 1,212,400 for 2008.
That being said, data from the CDC, which comes out every year, is still useful, helping reveal trends, fleshing out some of the demographics behind the data.
As noted above, the latest CDC report shows a drop of 3.1% from the totals of 2009. If applied to Guttmacher’s 1.2 million figure reported for 2008 that would translate to about 90,000 fewer abortions a year. Very encouraging.
What follows is complicated: even when they do report, not every state reports data in the same way, so different numbers of states are reflected in different demographic data sets. So it isn’t exact and different charts give different numbers. But here’s what we can say.
The CDC recorded that 15.1% of abortions were to teens, those aged 19 and younger. While this still represents a sizeable number of abortions, the number reflects a significant change from thirty years ago, when the CDC saw almost twice that figure (29.2%). Even as late as 2000, 19.2% of all abortions were performed on teenagers.
This tells us that the abortion demographic is skewing older, and the stats reflect that. In 1976, when abortion had been legal for just a few years, the percentages of abortions to teenagers, women 20-24, and women 25 and over were all roughly even: 32.1%, 33.3%, and 34.6%, respectively.
In these latest figures from the CDC, abortions to 20 to 24 year olds have barely changed, now at 32.9%, but the teen figure of 15.1% is now dwarfed by the percentage of abortions obtained by the 25 and up group – 52.1%!
Now, because the numbers have been dropping overall since about 1990, a higher percentage of the abortions does not necessarily translate into more abortions overall (52.1% of the 765,651 abortions the CDC lists for 2010 is 398,904, while 39% of the 1,328,570 the CDC reported in 1985 would be 518,142). But it shows more progress has been made, probably because of parental involvement laws, with teens than with older women.
A similar situation plays out with regard to race. Blacks accounted for 30.1% of all abortions in 1980, but were responsible for 40.6% of abortions in this latest CDC report. In raw numbers, there are probably tens of thousands fewer abortions among African-Americans than there were thirty years ago, indicating progress across the board. However we have seen greater success among white women who saw their numbers drop even more.
Hispanic abortions, which the CDC has not tracked as long as abortions to African-American, have shown a slight increase over the past ten years when it comes to percentages. But their abortion rates and ratios have shown significant drops in the states where this has been measured.
Overall, for all women, abortion rates are lower than they have been since 1973, the year the Supreme Court made abortion legal on demand in all fifty states. The abortion rate, measured by the CDC as the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44, was 25 in 1980, its peak. For 2010, the CDC is reporting a rate of 14.6 (it was 14 in 1973).
CDC’s abortion ratio–the number of abortions per 1,000 live births–was its highest, 364, in 1984. The CDC found a ratio of just 228 abortions for every thousand live births in 2010, a very slight uptick from the 227 recorded in 2009, but both are still lower than any other ratios recorded from 1974 on.
The lower abortion rates and ratios show that the lower numbers reflect not merely some statistical aberration due to population shifts but actual changes in attitudes and actions towards abortion in the wider culture. Abortion is becoming a less common occurrence in our society and a less common choice among pregnant women.
However there are some more concerning trends. Chemical, or “medical” abortions are definitely on the rise, now accounting for 19% of all abortions the CDC is able to track by method. These were virtually non-existent ten years ago, with the catch-all category of “other” (there was no “medical” abortion category then) accounting for just 1.7% of all abortions.
Most of the rest of the abortions tracked by the CDC were some form of “Curettage,” surgical abortions, accounting for about 80.7% of abortions in states that tracked both surgical and chemical methods.
The surge of chemical abortions is also probably responsible for a general shift towards abortions at earlier and earlier gestations. As late as 1985 about half (50.3%) of all abortions were at 8 weeks gestation or earlier; the CDC’s most recent figure puts these at nearly two-thirds (65.9%). To make the shift even more apparent, 19.2% of abortions in the CDC’s 1998 abortion surveillance report were performed at 6 weeks gestation or less. By 2010, the CDC put that percentage at 37.8%.
Abortions continue to be performed in the second trimester and later, the CDC finds. In 2010, 8% of abortions were performed at more than 13 weeks gestation, with 1.3% being done at 21 weeks or more. These are down, though not substantially, from where they were ten years ago, when the CDC recorded 8.9% of abortions at 13 weeks and 1.5% at 21 weeks or more.
High numbers of abortions continue to be repeat abortions. Of those abortions where the presence or absence of a previous abortion was known, 44.6% were repeat abortions. Eight and a half percent had had three previous abortions or more.
Another troubling statistic is that CDC figures continue to show that high numbers of aborting women have already given birth to a child. Almost 60% (59.7%) of aborting women the CDC had data on had already had given birth to at least one child before having their abortions in 2010.
The latest CDC report does inform us that more than four hundred women have died from legal abortion since 1973 (figures aren’t available for 2010 yet). And if they try to tell you that this is an artifact of our less medically advanced past, let them know that 85 of those women have died since 2000.
That numbers, rates, and ratios have come down so far is a testament to the hard work and dedication of pro-lifers. They have passed out the literature, gotten the laws passed, offered practical assistance and realistic alternatives to abortion that were better for both mother and child. And the numbers show that we have been effective.
We still have a long way to go, though. Keep working, keep giving, keep reaching out, keep praying. It makes a difference.
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