By Randall K. O’Bannon, Ph.D., NRL Director of Education & Research
You’ve heard it before.
The claim that “one in three” women will have an abortion by age 45. You may even remember earlier iterations that had it as high as 43%. And you probably said to yourself, “That can’t be right!”
Well, a fact-checker on the Washington Post has, to a degree, validated your suspicions.
Under the headline, “The stale claim that ‘one in three’ women will have an abortion by age 45,”Michelle Ye Hee Lee rates that claim as being worthy of “Two Pinocchios” – the Post’s indication that the claim involves “significant omissions and/or exaggerations.”
Though this statistic has appeared multiple places (Lee calls it “ubiquitous” and points out there is even a group named after it), the Post is specifically addressing its appearance in a video put out by a group called UltraViolet that supposedly is addressing popular “myths” about abortion.
A spokesperson for the group told the Post that the “one in three” figure illustrates that abortion is “part of everyday life.”
The video itself does not cite any source for the claim, but Lee traces it back to the Guttmacher Institute, which published a study in 2011 based on abortion data collected between 2000 and 2008.
Guttmacher used data from a survey of nearly 9,500 abortion patients who visited clinics, hospitals, and private doctors’ offices in 2008 to determine the numbers of women of different age groups having their first abortions. These were then used to calculate “cumulative first abortion rates” which, combined with population figures for women of reproductive age, yielded an expected “lifetime incidence” of abortion of about 30%, or “one in three.”
The idea is not that one in three women have had an abortion, but that, over their entire reproductive lifetime (usually understood as between the ages of 15 and 44), one in three women of reproductive age in 2008 would be expected to have an abortion before reaching age 45.
Inherent in this projection, though, is an assumption that abortion rates will stay the same. As Lee points out, we already know that is not the case.
Guttmacher ran a similar calculation for 1992 and obtained a figure of an expected 43% lifetime incidence. But this projection did not hold.
In 2008, the lifetime incidence percentage dropped to 30%. Newer data indicate that lifetime figure may decline further, as abortion rates dropped once again from 2008 to 2011.
When the 43% lifetime incidence figure was calculated in 1992, Guttmacher said the overall abortion rate was 25.7 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age (as of July 1 of each year).
The overall abortion rate in 2008 (for which Guttmacher is reporting a 30% lifetime incidence projection) had declined to 22.5 abortions per 1,000 women of reproductive age.
The overall abortion rate for 2011 is still lower– 21.2 abortions for every thousand women aged 15-44.
If the projected lifetime incidence tracked the overall abortion rate (some of this also depends on whether drops in the abortion rate are concentrated among women in older or younger age subgroups), a further decline would be expected. And greater drops in lifetime incidence of abortion would be expected if abortion rates continue to decline.
Lee reports that newer lifetime incidence projections based on an abortion patient survey Guttmacher conducted in 2014 are not expected to be published until early 2017.
All these projections – that 43% of women are expected to have an abortion by the time they reach their 45th birthday, or 30% (or “one in three”)–are all estimates based on the assumption that the abortion rates at the time of the projection would prevail for all subsequent years.
The Post’s fact-checker says that “Organizations, such as UltraViolet, repeating this figure need to include this caveat in their materials.” Lee says Guttmacher usually does, but not always.
Though a substantial portion of the population has indeed experienced abortion, a considerable number can and have been persuaded to choose life for their child. Pro-life educational efforts, legislation, the provision of practical alternatives at pregnancy care centers have paid off.
That’s why abortion rates have fallen, the “lifetime incidence” projection dropped, and abortions have from about 1.5 million in 1992 to just over a million in 2011.
Advocates of abortion are anxious to make every woman an ally by making her believe that abortion is an inevitable part of her future. But thanks to you, the projections don’t always pan out.